Theater Latté Da’s intriguing, but uneven, musical production of Violet opened at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio on Saturday night. Jeanine Tesori composed the music, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. The musical is based on a short story by Doris Betts titled “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” which was turned into an Academy Award winning short film in 1981.
The play takes place in the deep south in 1964, its story unfolding on a stage with a telephone pole that serves as both a symbol of the road and a crucifix. It tells the story of a young woman named Violet whose face was horribly scarred at thirteen when she was accidentally struck by her father’s ax. The scar altered her life, alienated her from her community, and left her being treated as a freak. As an adult, Violet is obsessed with a television evangelist who she believes can heal her scar and make her beautiful. So begins her bus ride pilgrimage from her home in Spruce Pines, North Carolina, to the preacher’s television show in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
|violet, playing through march 21 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($18-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org.|
During her journey, Violet meets two soldiers: Monty, who is white, and Flick, who is black. Violet has feelings for Flick but carelessly hurts him by saying she would rather have her scar than be black. Violet’s self-esteem is so low she sleeps with Monty, the white soldier, even though she expects he will treat it as a one-night stand regardless of his promises.
Composer Tesori created the music for Caroline, or Change, and I was disappointed that Tesori did not provide a show-stopping number similar to her “16 Feet Beneath the Sea” in Caroline. But certain songs worked exceedingly well, including “Luck of the Draw.” Tesori draws from influences including country, gospel, and R&B; unfortunately, the energy from the music fell flat during the ballads “You’re Different” and “Lay Down Your Head,” just before the intermission.
The second half of the production quickly picks up the energy, with the stirring number “Raise Me Up” and a Dorothy-meets-the-Wizard confrontation between Violet and the evangelist in his TV studio. Faced with Violet’s earnest appeal for a miracle, the preacher has to give her an answer that is both honest and pathetic.
Director Peter Rothstein skillfully steers the action between the alternating scenes of young Violet and the adult Violet. Maeve Moynihan gives a captivating performance as the energetic teenage Violet. Whenever Moynihan was on stage, I found her irrepressible charm diverting my attention from the other Violet. Britta Ollmann is exquisite in her singing as the adult Violet, but there are times where her character comes off too intelligent and too jaded to be credible as a Violet who blindly believes that a TV evangelist could heal her. Azudi Onyekekwe provides a stellar performance as Flick, the soldier who is drawn to Violet’s inner beauty but cannot act on his feelings because he is black and it is 1964. Randy Schmeling as Monty, Dieter Bierbrauer as Violet’s father, and Alan Sorenson as the preacher all provide strong supporting performances. The three musicians do an artful job of playing the music on stage. The trio avoid overpowering the performers, yet aren’t so unassuming that they blend into the scenery.
Even though the songs are uneven, the well-directed Violet features genuinely engaging performances, spirited music, and an effectively surprising plot twist at the end.