When it comes to drama, Val Williams knew what she was doing early.
“My mom tells me the story that I once went to the doctor, and looked over at her and said, ‘Mother, don’t let them hurt me.’ I think I was literally getting one shot,” she recalled. “So since then, I’ve been performing.”
Acting, singing, playing musical instruments, producing her own shows: The Peters Township High School graduate and Mt. Lebanon resident is as versatile as she is engaging when entertaining audiences.
A summer audience at Market Square for Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s KidsPlay program could have been a tough one. But Williams and her “Songs for Young Whippersnappers: Live!” show had the youngsters in attendance on their feet, dancing and singing along in a highly interactive manner, by design.
“Our adult attention spans these days are not very long, let alone a little one,” she explained. “But it’s amazing how long they will pay attention if they’re engaged.”
From silly standards such as “One-Eyed Purple People Eater” to get-your-body-moving tunes like “Wipe Out,” Williams provides a nonstop flow of music that is fun and familiar, even for those who aren’t whippersnappers.
“Yes, we’re targeting young people with the way we perform,” she said. “But everybody in the audience can go, I know that song – ‘See you later, alligator’ – and really get into it. By having that happen, the younger children are more into it, and it’s something we can all enjoy, together.”
Williams’ work with children extends to her teaching at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Beaver County, including direction of “Seussical JR.” this summer at the center’s Henry Mancini Academy. But there’s a whole lot more.
“Like many artists,” she said, “I have my fingers in many different pies.”
Beyond the Whippersnappers show, for instance, she has several others available for booking: “Over There” and “As Time Goes By,” featuring songs from the eras of World Wars I and II, respective; “Golden Hollywood,” from classic movie musicals; “Vintageous,” a tribute to likes of Peggy Lee, Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney; and the revues “Doo Wops and Sock Hops” and “Leading Ladies of Broadway.”
During her decade-plus of living in New York City, she sang with the nostalgic vocal group the Manhattan Dolls, with which she started the nonprofit program “A Day with the Dolls,” taking performances to senior centers and homes, hospitals and veterans’ groups.
“I grew up with all kinds of different music in my house,” Williams said. “My grandparents were born in the ’20s, and they listened to the Big Band-era stuff, the Great American Songbook. My mom was born in the ’40s, and she listened to everything, really. Everyone in my family was just really musical.”
The inspiration for “Songs for Young Whippersnappers,” in fact, came from a song by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren that first appeared in a 1939 film, “Naughty But Nice.”
“In 2012, I was listening to Pandora, and I heard the Manhattan Rhythm Kings’ version of ‘Hooray for Spinach.’ And I thought it was so cute. I actually contacted their manager. Long story short, it turned out that a man who worked with them had been in the River City Brass Band back in the ’90s,” she said about the Pittsburgh-based musical institution.
“That kind of kicked it off, and then one thing led to another, where I ended up pulling all these songs together,” Williams explained. “I call it classic American music reimagined for children.”
And now for something completely different: the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music graduate is preparing for her role in the Ghostlight Theatre Troupe’s performance of “Belfast Girls,” scheduled for Oct. 25-28 at Carnegie Stage.
“It’s about the women who came over from Ireland to Australia in the 1850s, thinking they were headed to a better life and they ended up, many of them, indentured servants,” she said. “I love to diversify, and I think Pittsburgh is such a great place for that. I feel like I’m really exploring a totally new city as an artist and I’m very excited about the growth opportunities I see here.”