Violet: The Musical
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley
Directed by Dyan McBride
Bay Area Musicals
There’s a sweet parable about inner beauty offered in Bay Area Musicals fine production of Violet: The Musical, a story of self-healing enveloped in the charming music by Broadway sensation Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline, or Change, Shrek the Musical and Thoroughly Modern Millie) and libretto by Ben Crawley.
Based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, it tells the tale of a disfigured woman who travels from her hometown of Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the hope of being physically healed by a televangelist. With excellent staging by director Dyan McBride, we get to see the young Vi (played by the charming Miranda Long) and her father (Eric Neiman) juxtaposed with the elder Violet on her long journey by Greyhound bus.
It’s 1964, and Young Vi is a carefree, happy child (“Water in the Well”). Motherless, she dotes on her father before her face is disfigured in an accident involving an errant axe blade. The brunt of jokes, her visage the cause of repulsion from the locals, the devout Vi can only hope for the deliverance from her suffering (“Surprise”).
The ensemble cast appear as fellow travelers on the bus, each with ideas of where the journey will take them (“On My Way”). At a rest stop, Violet meets two poker-playing soldiers, Monty (Jack O’Reilly) and Flick (Jon-David Randle) an joins in on their game. There’s a sweet flashback to Young Vi being taught to play by her father (“Luck of the Draw”).
Juliana Lustenader stars as Violet, with a lovely voice that captures the expectations, hopes and drive of a woman on a life-changing mission. Along the ride Violet is courted by both Monty, a Green Beret candidate about to be shipped off to Viet Nam and Flick, an African-American who scoffs at Violet’s impending ‘healing’.
There a fun side plots about a stop at a brothel in Memphis and the eventual meeting of the TV evangelist set that includes standout performances by Tanika Baptiste (Lula Buffington and gospel singer Almeta) and the always fantastic Clay David (Preacher). Its during her unsuccessful meeting with the Preacher that Violet reconciles with her late father in the touching “That’s What I Could Do”. Believing she has been cured, Violet’s disposition changes and Flick, notices her inner conversion (her scar remains). Of course the moral of the story is all about inner beauty versus skin-deep artifice. The point is made for forceful by Violet choosing Flick, a man who’s whole existence is judged by the color of his skin.
The leads ( Lustenadar, Randle, O’Reilly, Long, Neiman and David) create empathetic characters even though the book is a tad weak on character development. Each has solo numbers with a chance to shine and all succeed admirably.
The ensemble is well cast (Shay Ogelsby-Smith, Tucker Gold, Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Kim Larsen, Tanika Baptiste, April Deutschle, Jourdain Olivier-Verde, Elizabeth Jones and Danielle Philapil) in a variety of roles. Musical Director Jon Gallo brings the multi-genre’ d score to life, enhanced by Brooke Jennings’s period piece costumes and Jacqueline Dennis’ wigs. Lighting Designer Eric Johnson sets the Mid-western atmosphere buoyed by Matthew McCoy’s interesting set design of distressed wooden slats that corral the action in the foreground while also using actors lit behind this wall.
All-around, this intimate version of Violet: The Musical is easy of the eyes, ears and heartstrings.
Violet: The Musical” will play at the Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary St., San Francisco, through March 17th. Night performances, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Information: 415-340-2207 or www.bamsf.org.
Photos by Ben Krantz.