Opening Tonight: A Youthful VIOLET

One of the lesser-known pleasures of summer around here is the theatre production which culminates the annual Summer Youth Conservatory program of PlayMakers Repertory Company. Talented stage-struck students from Triangle area schools work for about a month with professionals in PlayMakers’ facilities at UNC-CH to prepare a show, generally a musical; a little later in the process students interested in the backstage work join them for technical training. Then late in July, the show gets a full production in the Paul Green Theater in the UNC Center for Performing Arts. The ones I’ve seen have been thoroughly enjoyable, full of heart and overflowing with good energy.

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L to R: Presyce Baez as Flick, Wilson Plonk as Monty and Ainsley Seiger as Violet in PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory production of VIOLET.  Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

This year’s production, Violet, derives from a story by the late great Doris Betts, “The Ugliest Pilgrim.” With wonderful, varied, music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, it’s a fine conversion of the touching story about a young, scarred  girl from Spruce Pine, NC, and her travel into the wider world. The lead role is filled by Ainsley Seiger, who did such a fine job last year in Guys and Dolls. Matthew Steffens, who led that production, directs and choreographs again this year.

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Marcella Cox and the ensemble in PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory production of VIOLET. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Violet opens tonight, July 21, after a preview show, and will play July 21-23 and 29-30 at 7:30 pm, with matinees on July 24 and 31 at 2 pm. Modestly priced tickets here.

Sweet Summer Youth Conservatory: GUYS & DOLLS

L to R:  Colin Kless as Benny Southstreet, Ryan Widd as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Daniel Johnson as Rusty Charlie,  on the set of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

L to R: Colin Kless as Benny Southstreet, Ryan Widd as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Daniel Johnson as Rusty Charlie, on the set of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has slowly but surely been winning me over to the pleasures of good musical theatre. One of its prime strategic weapons has been Jeffrey Meanza, who understands musicals in his bones, and has been known to steal a show or two. Meanza came nine summers ago to start PRC’s Summer Youth Conservatory. He meant to stay three months, but instead stayed on as education director, then as associate artistic director for PRC. Now he’s departing, to join Joseph Haj at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater–but not before one last SYC swan song.

The Meanza-directed classic musical Guys & Dolls opened last night on the Paul Green Theater stage at the UNC Center for Dramatic Art in Chapel Hill, and it is a delight. The high school-age students in the summer intensive program have excelled–there are no weak links in this professionally-mounted production. The on-stage talent is augmented by that of the technical student apprentices in a parallel program in back-of-the-stage theatrical work. The young people in the SYC programs come from many schools all over the Triangle area, so to put on this glittering, big-hearted show, they’ve not only learned lines and music and stagecraft, but the great lesson of bonding with strangers to make something bigger than any of them.

The Ensemble in  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

The Ensemble in PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Guys & Dolls, with its music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, is based on stories and characters by Damon Runyon from the 1920s and 1930s. The musical was first staged in 1950, and promptly won a Tony Award. It has been made for film, and re-staged any number of times. Some of its songs have been recorded and sung so often by so many that their origin is nearly lost in the haze of popularity. The reason for this? They are just plain good.

Meanza and crew have set this production in the New York of the mid-1930s, and it’s carried off with panache. Scenic designer Robin Vest makes the most of the possibilities of the stage’s lift and slide mechanisms, and together with lighting designer Dominic Abbenante, gives us grit and glamour galore. Jade Bettin has, as usual, produced a stageful of gorgeous costumes, and music director Mark Lewis, as always, accomplishes small miracles.  After several weeks of total immersion in the choreographies shown at the American Dance Festival, Matthew Steffens’ work didn’t strike me as particularly exciting, but it suits the show, and there are several really charming bits.

Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide with The Hot Box Girls, in Act II of  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

“Take Back Your Mink:” Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide with The Hot Box Girls, in Act II of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

But it is the young actors who bring all the troubles and hopes of the guys and dolls to life, and for whom you will laugh and clap. Several have strong singing skills, and some have real voices. Most notable is Maya Ison, who plays the Mission sergeant Sarah Brown. High, clear, powerful and nuanced, this voice will be going places. Ison is also lovely in her characterization. Also strong–and funny!– is Ainsley Seiger, who plays Miss Adelaide, the Hot Box revue star engaged for 14 years to Nathan Detroit, organizer of the oldest permanent floating craps game in New York. Seiger and Ison’s duet near the end of Act II is perfectly fabulous.

Although his voice is not as strong, Ethan Fox makes a good Nathan Detroit, quick with the patter and believably harassed by the exigencies by his undertaking and by Lt. Brannigan (Jack Carmichael). He is, however, overshadowed by the fourth lead, gambler Sky Masterson, dashingly played by Gideon Chickos. Chickos’ portrayal of his character’s transformation from heartless, insouciant risk-taker to honest lover is mature beyond his apparent years. His scenes with Miss Sarah (Ison) are particularly winning, although he commands the entire theater space with his rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” as he prepares to roll for the souls of his fellow sinners.

You can get lucky yourself with this show tonight through Sunday, and again next weekend. PRC box office: 919.962.7529.

Ethan Fox as Nathan Detroit and Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide in the happy ending of  PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Photo:  Jon Gardiner.

Ethan Fox as Nathan Detroit and Ainsley Seiger as Miss Adelaide in the happy ending of PlayMakers SYC production of Guys & Dolls. Through July 25, 2015.  Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Wit and talent in SYC’s URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL

Remember that bad drought we were in a few years ago? The lakes dried up, the media promoted the “if it’s yellow” mantra, people were busted for lawn-watering, middle-aged women were spied doing rain dances late at night, and the government started handing out credits for low-flow toilets. Take that scenario to the power of 100, and you have the set-up for Urinetown: The Musical. There is so little water that private toilets have been banned. So has peeing behind a tree. Elimination is allowed only in the public amenities, which are not free—nor publicly run. Owned by an evil charming man and his corporation, the “amenities” are so costly that the people are always in need of a pee. Those who can’t pay are hauled off to Urinetown and summarily executed.

PRC’s Summer Youth Conservatory in URINETOWN:THE MUSICAL. Photo: Andrea Akin.

I know this sounds dreary, but it is actually smart and sassy, biting in a Brechtian sort of way that asserts the need for social change and an unquenchable belief that it can be made to occur. The two-act musical (Greg Kotis and Mark Holloman), as staged by PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory (through July 22 in the Paul Green Theater), offers both light relief and something sweeter—a renewed hopefulness. These kids could be the ones to slay the corporate dragons and their despicable corrupt legislative minions.

Officer Lockstock (Dylan Goodman) and Little Sally (Olivia Griffin) do a little exposition in URINETOWN. Photo: Andrea Akin.

“These kids” are the talented Chapel Hill-area middle-and high-school students attending the fifth annual Summer Youth Conservatory, where they work with PRC’s professionals in all areas of creating stage productions. This year’s intensive is culminating this weekend with the boisterous Urinetown, cast of 25, some of whom look like they are on their ways to the UNC School of the Arts.

The SYC is a marvelous program, the kind of thing that makes one feel better about the state university that’s been dragging itself through the mud tracked in by “student-athletes” and their enablers. Five years ago, the SYC made its tentative beginnings in collaboration with the Carrboro ArtsCenter, and now the program has gathered support and moved to the PRC’s well-equipped facilities in the UNC Center for Dramatic Art.

50 years ago, its predecessor was in full swing as a residential program for stage-struck high-schoolers from around the state. Run by John Parker at that time, it was called Junior Playmakers, and was my introduction to The Playmakers and its theater (now called the Historic Playmakers Theater) with the corn on its Corinthian columns. My aunt came for it, living in Old East, running back and forth across the street to the theater, and spreading the theater contagion to her niece with her zest for the whole enterprise. Her group performed Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart. I am willing to bet that all of the Junior Playmakers remember their experience as vividly as my aunt.

The SYC does not include a residential component, but it does offer an almost matchless opportunity for young theater artists to test and strengthen their skills. From an audience point of view, the SYC provides a high-energy theater experience in what otherwise might be the doldrums of summer. The SYC is the kind of community work, and Urinetown: The Musical the kind of play that would make Paul Green proud. Besides that, it will make you laugh out loud.

Grand finale of the gospel number in URINETOWN. Photo: Andrea Akin.

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