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Teen Phenom Ainsley Seiger Tackles the Title Role in the PlayMakers SYC Production of Violet

Ainsley Seiger stars as Violet and Presyce Baez (left) and Wilson Plonk star as Flick and Monty in the PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory production of <em>Violet</em> (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Ainsley Seiger stars as Violet and Presyce Baez (left) and Wilson Plonk star as Flick and Monty in the PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory production of Violet (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory (SYC) will tackle Violet, with a cast of high school actors under the direction of Matthew Steffens, on July 20-24 and 29-31 in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. This 1997 Off-Broadway and 2014 Broadway musical features music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Brian Crawley, and a book by Crawley, based on N.C. author and writing teacher Doris Betts’ 1973 short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim.”

Violet: A New Musical made its Off-Broadway debut, directed by Susan H. Schulman, on March 11, 1997 at Playwrights Horizons, where it closed on April 6, 1997. The show starred Lauren Ward as Violet. Violet won the 1997 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, the 1997 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, and a Special Citation for Jeanine Tesori (music) at the 1996-97 OBIE Awards.

Violet made its belated Broadway debut, directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Jeffrey Page, on April 20, 2014 at the American Airlines Theatre, where it played 128 performances before closing on Aug 10, 2014. Sutton Foster played the title character, and earned one of the show’s four 2014 Tony Award® nominations. She also earned a 2014 Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Musical.

“I first heard about Violet when it came to Broadway in 2014, starring the amazingly talented Sutton Foster and Joshua Henry [as Flick],” recalls PlayMakers Rep guest director and choreographer Matthew Steffens. “Though the show had been around since its Off-Broadway run in 1997, it wasn’t until the Broadway production that I discovered how great a show it truly is.

“I think it’s such an inspiring story, and the music is amazing,” claims Steffens. “However, I was working on the Off-Broadway immersive show Queen of the Night at the time, so I didn’t get to see it onstage. Since I’ve never seen the show or worked on it, this gives me the opportunity for ‘fresh eyes’ and a totally new approach to the piece….

“Having spent the past two summers at PlayMakers working on Hairspray and Guys & Dolls,” Steffens says, “I really wanted to continue to elevate the program, building on the quality of these wonderful SYC shows. So, two things made me want to direct this particular show. The heart of the show. It explores the meanings of inner beauty, courage and love, things so pertinent right now in this age of social media. Secondly, the music. It seamlessly crosses so many musical genres: 1960s rock, bluegrass, gospel, country, pop, Memphis blues, musical theater. Yet, at the end, we always want more!”

He adds, “This also gives me the opportunity to work for the third year with the uber-talented Ainsley Seiger. Audiences will remember her as Miss Adelaide from last year’s SYC Guys & Dolls. She recently won Best Actress in the [2016] Triangle Rising Star Awards and has gone on to compete on Broadway. She returns to us fresh from this time in New York. It isn’t often your lead comes straight from Broadway one night into rehearsal the next day! ”

Presyce Baez and Ainsley Seiger star as Flick and Violet (photo by Jon Gardiner)</strong></font></p>

Presyce Baez and Ainsley Seiger star as Flick and Violet (photo by Jon Gardiner)

When the curtain rises on Violet, says director Matthew Steffens, “[A] young disfigured woman named Violet (Ainsley Seiger)[, with just a suitcase in hand,] sets out on a journey by bus from Spruce Pine, NC, to Tulsa, OK, to find a cure in the healing touch of an evangelical TV Preacher (Thomas Cassidy).

“Violet, having accidentally been struck by a wayward axe blade wielded by her Father (Connor Lewis), begins to challenge the beliefs of her Appalachian roots,” says Steffens. “On her bus ride, she meets an African-American soldier Flick (Presyce Baez) and a white solider Monty (Wilson Plonk), who also challenge her opinions regarding outward appearances. Through a series of flashbacks to Young Vi (Lili Whittier), we learn more and more about Violet as she travels through the Deep South of 1964. Will the Preacher be able to cure her disfigured face? Will Violet realize her inner beauty — or maybe even find true love?

In addition to the cast members named above, the rest of the cast includes (in alphabetical order): Andrew Bonomolo as Virgil, Cassandra Clare as the Old Lady, Michael Combs as the Waiter/Bus Driver 3, Hagan Connell as Bus Driver 2, Marcella Cox as Lula/Music Hall Singer, Tra Duncan as the Choir Director, Cole Farmer as Bus Driver 4/Leroy Evans, Theo Holt as Billy Dean, Wilson Plonk as Monty, Beth Siegling as the Hotel Singer, Camryn Sherer as Almeta, dance captain Zachary Weiss as Bus Driver 1, and Lili Whittier as Young Vi. Andrew Bonomolo, Marichi Gupta, and Kaitlin Jennings comprise the Cowboy Trio; and the ensemble includes Rosie Cassidy, Anna Crosby, Bella Lambert, and Avery Tyson.

Matthew Steffens says, “The biggest challenge [in staging Violet] is that unlike most book musicals, we jump locations quickly throughout the show. Establishing when we are on the bus, at the diner, the church, or in Violet’s memory will be a challenge as often only one or two lines establish our location. Secondly, tackling so many musical genres — bluegrass, country — is something I look forward to. There is a flavor of music for every liking, and [that] requires the cast to have dexterity in their approach to the music.”

Steffens adds, “Violet is very similar to shows like Hamilton that have one set with props coming on and to transport the audience to new locales. Last year, I worked on the Broadway production of Doctor Zhivago and this was also a major challenge for us in that show. It taught me many lessons I hope to apply as we stage this production.

Lili Whittier stars as Young Vi and Connor Lewis plays her Father (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Lili Whittier stars as Young Vi and Connor Lewis plays her Father (photo by Jon Gardiner)

In addition to director and choreographer Matthew Steffens, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for Violet includes music director Mark Lewis, assistant music director Jesse Kapsha, production manager Michael Rolleri, technical director Laura Pates, scenic designer Robin Vest, lighting designer Dominic Abbenante, costume designer Sarah Epting, sound designer Ryan Gastelum, stage manager Charles K. Bayang. Besides music director Mark Lewis (piano), the show’s musicians include Ed Butler (drums), Nate Huvard (guitar), Caroline Iantosca (cello), and Laura Thomas (violin).

Director Matthew Steffens says, “I’ve been blessed to play on a lot of fun sets in my career. Whether it was on Broadway with Promises, Promises, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or Julie Taymor’s Grendel, or any of the 12 operas I’ve worked on at the Metropolitan Opera, I’ve been on a lot of fun sets; and this is a fun set!

“We have Robin Vest, who designed the sets for Hairspray and Guys & Dolls, back for this production,” notes Matthew Steffens. “Inspired by Violet’s Appalachian roots, the multilevel set brings the audience intimately into the world of her bus journey. With four different platforms, a catwalk, and a main level, the set seamlessly transforms into Violet’s home, a crowded bus, a night club in Memphis, or a mega-church in Tulsa. ”

He adds, “Dominic Abenante (Hairspray, Guys & Dolls) is also back with us; and he never disappoints. The lighting will help support the changing of scenes throughout the show. Stark lighting will reflect off of the trees to bring us into the world of Spruce Pine, NC. As we enter the bus and the many stations where it stops, Edison light bulbs and overhead lamps help shape the space. The lighting for Memphis and the church in Tulsa will include much flashier lighting plots, transporting us to those glitzier worlds….

“Sarah Epting returns this year after designing the costumes for Hairspray,” says Matthew Steffens. “Her approach on this show will be markedly different, but just as insightful. The costume designs embrace the tough world Violet comes from, with Appalachian influences and the grittiness of the 1960s seen in the clothing of the characters she meets on her journey, while the club in Memphis and church in Tulsa offer new opportunities to explore more flashy/refined sides of the 1964 Deep South.”

Steffens says, “This being my third year working with the program, I find that the actors have a motivating desire to learn and grow that has made every production stronger and, I believe, will make Violet one of the strongest productions PlayMakers‘ SYC has produced. This cast is so amazingly talented, I look forward to exploring in each day of rehearsal….

“With some of the events our country has had to endure recently, Violet will be a memorable experience, taking you on a ride that while immensely entertaining is sure to leave you asking questions and thinking about your own approach to life’s journey,” claims Matthew Steffens. “The inspiring story will make audiences laugh and cry, all the time tapping toes and moving in your seat. The powerful music of composer Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek, Fun Home, Caroline or Change) is just stupendous, and she delivers once again with Violet. And, our own Violet, Ainsley Seiger, is something special, having just won the Triangle Rising Star Award and performing this title role for SYC straight from singing on Broadway.

“While Violet might not be one of the better-known musical-theater titles,” Steffens says, “all these elements will combine for a terrific show, one that’s fun, moving, uplifting and inspires us to live life to the fullest. Come and enjoy — you’ll be glad you’ve discovered Violet!”

<em>Violet</em> features a gospel choir (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Violet features a gospel choir (photo by Jon Gardiner)

SECOND OPINION: July 18th Chapel Hill, NC Chapelboro.com preview: http://chapelboro.com/featured/violet-opens-at-playmakers-theater-featuring-local-students, July 16th preview by Michelle Lewis: http://chapelboro.com/columns/kids-shine/you-gotta-go-to-playmakers-this-week, and July 14th interview with director Matthew Steffens and actress Ainsley Seiger, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/playmakers-summer-youth-conservatory-goes-violet.

The PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory presents VIOLET at 7:30 p.m. July 20-23, 2 p.m. July 24, 7:30 p.m. July 29 and 30, and 2 p.m. July 31 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15 ($10 students and children under 18).

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-7529 or http://playmakersrep.org/box-office/.

SHOW: https://www.playmakersrep.org/show/violet/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1789139327982463/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYOuqutYeUQ.

PRC NEWS RELEASE: https://playmakersrep.org/press/playmakers-summer-youth-conservatory-to-perform-musical-violet/.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

PRC SUMMER YOUTH CONSERVATORY: http://playmakersrep.org/education-and-outreach/summer-youth-programs/ and https://www.facebook.com/PlayMakersSYC.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

OTHER LINKS:

“The Ugliest Pilgrim” from Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories (1973 short story collection): http://books.simonandschuster.com/Beasts-of-the-Southern-Wild-and-Other-Stories/Doris-Betts/9780684838052 (Simon & Schuster, Inc.) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beasts_of_the_Southern_Wild_and_Other_Stories (Wikipedia).

Doris Betts (novelist, short story writer, UNC-Chapel Hill Alumni Distinguished Professor Emerita, 1932-2012): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doris_Betts (Wikipedia).

Violet (1997 Off-Broadway and 2014 Broadway musical): http://www.mtishows.com/violet (Music Theatre International), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/383 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/violet-495831 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violet_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Roundabout/media/Roundabout/PDF/UPSTAGE/VIOLET_UpstageGuide.pdf (Roundabout Theatre Company of New York, NY).

Jeanine Tesori (music): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/4259 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/jeanine-tesori-12488 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1507221/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanine_Tesori (Wikipedia).

Brian Crawley (lyrics and book): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/4262 (Internet Off-Broadway Database) and https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/brian-crawley-407159 (Internet Broadway Database).

Matthew Steffens (director and choreographer): https://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/matthew-steffens/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/matthew-steffens-488973 (Internet Broadway Database).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing robertm748@aol.com and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail robertm748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

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