‘Violet’ overcomes slow start with variety of musical numbers

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★☆☆

Juliana Lustenader (left), who stars in the title role of “Violet: The Musical,” is wooed by two GI suitors, heavy-drinking Jack O’Reilly as Monty (right) and Jon-David Randle as the more sensitive Flick (with Kim Larsen in the background). Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

Fifteen minutes into “Violet,” the new Bay Area Musicals’ production, I was bored — because the show had started slower than a three-toed sloth caught in a bog of molasses.

But an hour and a half later when the 15 actors took their bows, I was energized and inspired — because the show, its exposition now fully explored, had perked up exponentially.

That was mainly because the score by Jeanine Tesori, whose credentials are impeccable (she composed the music for “Caroline, or Change,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek the Musical”), morphed from leaning heavily on relentless, recitative-like musical strains to a variety of bouncier honky-tonk, blues, Gospel, rock ‘n’ roll and country.

And the book and lyrics by Brian Crawley had jelled enough to let me enjoy the musical in spite of its predictability and über-seriousness.

The almost-humorless storyline, which focuses on the Southern white title character’s involvement with a black GI in the ‘60s, is ultimately all about finding love and compassion, forgiveness and acceptance — and, of course, inner beauty rather than the skin-deep variety.

The way it achieves enlightenment, however, is to have Violet cross the country in search of a faith healer that she believes can help make her beautiful by removing a massive face scar (invisible to me and the rest of the audience),a disfigurement accidentally caused by her father’s flying axe when she’d just become a teenager.

Cheering the overall production is easy:

Clay David plays emotional Bible-thumping preacher in “Violet.” Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

All the voices are top-drawer, as are the acting chops of the principals (Juliana Lustenader, who I’d enjoyed seeing in the CustomMade Theatre production of “Tinderella: the modern musical,” as Violet, a slightly promiscuous miracle seeker; 12-year-old Miranda Long as her young incarnation; Jon-David Randle as Flick, the African-American soldier who pines for her; Jack O’Reilly as Monty, a hard-drinking, one-night-stand kind of guy; and especially Clay David as an emotional but compassionate televangelist.

The set, by scenic designer Matthew McCoy, who also happens to be the company’s founder and artistic director as well as the show’s choreographer, works incredibly smoothly despite its simple backdrop of a fence with several entrance-exit points.

Plus a circular revolving platform.

Vintage costumes by Brooke Jennings are effective throughout; ditto props by David.

Also noteworthy is the work of a six-piece, onstage band led by Jon Gallo, musical director and conductor, on keyboard for 25 numbers (including four reprises).

The showstopper in “Violet: The Musical” was a Gospel number, “Raise Me Up,” which features a socko joyful-noise vocal by Tanika Baptiste and a marvelously wild-eyed performance by David. So effective was the number, in fact, that more than a few audience members opening night shouted out praises to Jesus as if they were actually attending a revival meeting.

The show, which was based on short story by Doris Betts, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” had premiered off-Broadway in 1997. It ran less than a month, was overhauled, and finally made it to the Great White Way in 2014.

When all’s said and done, the musical’s final message is that you, yourself, can make miracles happen. So I guess all I need to do now is figure out how to miraculously get Trump to leave office without blowing up our democracy or the world.

“Violet: The Musical” will play at the Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary St., San Francisco, through March 17. Night performances, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $35 to $65. Information: 415-340-2207 or www.bamsf.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →