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BWW Review: Local Theatres Prepare the Next Generation

They say experience is a great teacher, and this truism is perhaps nowhere as apparent as theatre.

Raleigh Little Theatre is known in part for its youth programs, and PlayMakers Repertory Company, while being a professional theatre company at a university, also works hard to educate the next generation of the theatre.

Raleigh Little Theatre's Teens On Stage (TOS) is an intensive, six-week summer theatre program for ages 13 to 18. Students attended conservatory classes that included movement, acting, voice, and improvisation and finished the program with eleven performances of Bat Boy, The Musical.

I attended one of these performances last week and found much to impress. Bat Boy is a bizarre musical based on a story in the Weekly World News, the tabloid known for its strange, often paranormal cover stories. Three teenagers find a half-boy, half-bat creature in a cave near their town of Hope Falls, West Virginia. The veterinarian's wife, MerEdith Parker, and her daughter, Shelley, teach the boy to act "normal" (although that normalcy shows itself as a "My Fair Lady" crossed with "Flowers for Algernon" genius). The Bat Boy tries to fit in, but the townspeople ultimately turn on him - and then there's a twist that definitely shocked me.

Parker Perry as Bat Boy and Aubrey Clyburn as Meredith
(photo by Raleigh Little Theatre)

There were some lovely voices in the cast, including Parker Perry as Bat Boy, Aubrey Clyburn as MerEdith Parker, and Eden Bartholomew as Shelley, but it was hard to hear their voices due to the overpowering musicians. Clyburn's Act 1 solo, "A Home for You," was, for me, the highlight of the production.

Where you really saw the cast's skill, though, was in the comedy. The teens really seemed to understand Bat Boy's delightful mix of horror and humor, and I laughed a lot. The show quickly moves from gore to one-liners to tragedy to satire, but I never felt whiplash - just enjoyment.

Two nights later, I saw the very different production of "Violet" by PlayMakers Repertory Company's Summer Youth Conservatory. PlayMakers is the professional theatre company in residence at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Summer Youth Conservatory offers five-week Theatre Intensive (acting) and TheatreTech (technical) programs to high school students and recent high school graduates.

However, while I watched "Violet" (the Tony-nominated musical by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, based on Doris Betts' "The Ugliest Pilgrim"), I forgot I was watching teenagers. The story was compelling, the technical aspects blended well with the performance, and the voices were consistently beautiful.

In "Violet," a girl with a disfigured (from a scar, the result of a childhood accident) face travels from her home in Vietnam-era Spruce Pine, NC to Tulsa, Oklahoma for healing (beautifying) by a television preacher. Most of the musical takes place on her journey, where she meets two soldiers: Flick, an African-American, and Monty, his white friend. (The script makes parallels between Violet's and Flick's experiences as people who are judged and condemned based on their appearances.)

Ainsley Seiger, who plays Violet, was stunning and reminded me of the Broadway star of

Ainsley Seiger as Violet, Presyce Baez as Flick and Wilson Plonk as Monty
(photo by PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory)

"Violet," Sutton Foster. She was feisty, she was sympathetic, and she had a gorgeous voice. Other highlights of the production were Presyce Baez, who played a courageous Flick, and Lili Whittier and Connor Lewis, who played a young Violet and her father in flashbacks.

With themes of prejudice, race, and acceptance, "Violet" is a timely and complex show. That complexity didn't stand in the way of the young actors, though - or the audience. During intermission, I overheard a few teenagers - friends of cast members - discussing the story. One of them pointed out what I had also quickly noticed - that Violet didn't actually have a scar on her face. Another said that she thought that was the point.

In a Vanity Fair interview, Sutton Foster agreed: "How we see the scar, how the audience sees the scar is through everyone's reaction to Violet on stage. It's a broader idea. As human beings we all have scars, we have things that we desperately hold on to that we believe identify us. Some we can see, some we can't....How the audience sees the scar is how Violet feels about the scar: how she feels about it through her own hatred, frustration, and disdain and desperation. And then it becomes more of a universal idea as opposed to a completely specific deformity."

I heard a hint of this level of analysis from some teenagers during the intermission of a youth conservatory production performed at the level I expect from much older actors. Am I worried about the future of American theatre or the talent and depth of today's teenagers?

Not so much.

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From This Author Taryn Oesch

Taryn is a copyeditor and freelance writer in Raleigh, where she is a behind-the-scenes member of the theatre community. Her favorite plays/musicals are Next to (read more...)