Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2007
“To emphasize only the beautiful seems to me to be like a mathematical system that only concerns itself with positive numbers.”
– Paul Klee
Among local theatre critics the debate has been raging: Is Tina Packer too old, too heavy, or too Celtic to play Cleopatra? While we know Cleopatra’s chronological age, history tells us nothing about her appearance other than that she was “beautiful.” Tina Packer is beautiful, but she is not young, thin, or Mediterrarean. We confuse beauty with age or size or shape or color. Beauty has nothing to do with any of those.
In the musical Violet the title character, a young woman approaching 30 whose face was disfigured after she was accidentally struck by an axe blade at the age of 13, goes on a pilgrimage to a televangelist (played by Joseph Breen) she believes can heal her and make her “beautiful.” It is director Igor Goldin’s decision to have both the lovely Lara Hayhurst who plays Violet, and Ashley Blasland who plays Young Violet, appear without any facial prosthetics. In other words only Violet sees her scar, we don’t.
But we do see other people’s reaction to it, and Violet’s own self-loathing along with her conviction that if she just looked different, she would BE different. People, men especially, treat Violet as less than human. Where a “normal” girl is worth courting, Violet gets grabbed and groped as if her feelings are of no consequence.
Violet’s pilgrimage takes her, via Greyhound bus, across the Bible Belt from the hills of her native North Carolina to the TV studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma from whence the televangelist’s show originates. Along the way she meets an Old Lady (Jerielle Morwitz), and two soldiers – a white Private named Monty (Trey Compton) and a black Sergeant named Flick (John Edwards). Scenes of their journey are intercut with scenes from Violet’s adolescent years with her Father (Matthew Daly).
Violet isn’t the only one whose appearance causes difficulties. It is 1964 and Flick is not welcome in many of the southern towns through which they travel. Conversely, when they arrive in Memphis, Tennessee and Flick brings Monty and Violet to stay with him at a “Colored Establishment” the landlady (Kristyl Dawn Tift) is none too pleased to have white folks under her roof. Violet and Monty are just as undesirable to her as Flick is to the thugs they meet in the bus station. All of this ugliness is caused solely by what people look like – not who they are or what they do or do not do.
Violet has led a sheltered life in the hills. She tells Flick that he is the first Negro she has ever known – “you are like a foreigner to me” she tells him. When he offers to trade faces with her she replies, “I said I wanted to be beautiful. Why would I want colored skin?” Used to being judged by what is on her surface, Violet applies similar standards to the people around her.
In many ways this 1998 musical, which was a big off-Broadway hit for composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist/librettist Brian Cawley, is extremely predictable. Using physical travel as a metaphor for inner growth and change is a very, very old literary device (Violet is based on a short story by Dorothy Betts entitled The Ugliest Pilgrim.) Like Baum’s Dorothy, Violet embarks on her journey to seek a miracle, along the way she meets three friends who prove pivotal in her metamorphosis, and when she reaches her “Emerald City” of Tulsa, the man behind the curtain is a fraud who cannot give her what she thinks she needs. In the end she discovers she had it all along.
In other ways Violet is an engaging piece of modern musical theatre, and Goldin’s production at the Theater Barn is innovative and very well cast with the kind of quirky up-and-coming young performers that the Barn routinely attracts. In fact many of the members of this cast are returning after earlier successes. Hayhurst, Morwitz, Blasland, and Daly all appeared in last year’s very successful production of Urinetown at the Barn. Compton, Joseph Breen, Jim Nassef, and James Stover (along with Morwitz and Daly) all appeared in Johnny Guitar the Barn’s first musical of the 2007 season, and I bet they will be staying around for Little Shop of Horrors, along, I hope, with many other members of this talented crew (Oh please, let Tift and Masonya Berry play Ronnette, Crystal, or Chiffon in Little Shop. They are such wonderful singers!)
Hayhurst starts out weak vocally, which is puzzling since her performance as Hope Cladwell in Urinetown and her powerful singing later in this show prove that she is more than capable of projecting. Once she gets going, however, she is a dynamic Violet. Her melt-down in front of the Preacher is mesmerizing and powerful.
It is nice to see Blasland play a girl past puberty this year. She does a fine job as Young Violet, and her scenes with Daly are very moving. Daly is in fine voice hear, and gives a touching performance as the widower who does the best he can raising a young daughter in poverty. It proves that he was wielding the axe that maimed Violet – the blade flying free from the handle and striking her in one of those tragic accidents that tear a parent in two. And yet Violet and her Father only have each other, so they must get past the tragedy and on with the business of raising each other. Violet’s pilgrimage happens after her father’s passing, so we see her relationship with him only in flashbacks. One of my favorite scenes and songs was Luck of the Draw when we saw Father teaching Young Violet how to play Poker as the adult Violet beats Monty and Flick in a game at a bus stop.
Monty is supposed to be a jerk, and Compton plays him exactly as written. Not that we don’t see hope for redemption, but Monty, the only “acceptable” looking (young, thin, white) member of the caravan, has the least attractive personality. In real life Compton and Hayhurst are engaged, which gave the scene in which Monty beds Violet a sense of passion not possible between two performers who felt less physically comfortable together. Flick is the more sympathetic character, and Edwards does a nice job with him.
Breen is excellent as the Preacher, a man who has gained everything the world holds valuable and lost his soul in the process. The scene in Act II when we see and hear the Preacher and the Philadelphia choir he has hired to sing with him on his program rehearse Raise Me Up is very well staged. The Choir, led by Tift as Lula, consists of the entire cast except for Hayhurst and Breen. Their entrance got a big hand (you’ll see why). Then they come out into the audience, creating true surround sound with Tesori’s rousing music.
Tesori, who is best known for her new songs for the score of Thoroughly Modern Millie won my heart with her phenomenal Caroline, or Change. Violet has much more of the unique energy of Caroline... even though it will never be the commercial money-maker that ...Millie is.
Michael McAssey is the musical director and keyboardist here, providing strong off-stage instrumental support with his four piece band. Abe Phelps has wiped the stage clean except for a large revolving staircase that serves many purposes. Jonathan Knipscher has designed effective costumes for this unglamorous show.
Violet is a decidedly unconventional and noncommercial musical. There are no big dance numbers, and while there is a happy ending it is hard won and the majority of the show depicts tough and gritty reality. It is a pleasure to have a local theatre willing to present strong productions of alternative musical theatre. Take a chance on Violet. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Violet runs through August 19 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. There is one bedroom scene, some rough racial language, and difficult emotional scenes which make me recommend that you leave children under 13 at home. However I attended with a pair of 14-year-olds who enjoyed it thoroughly, so do bring your teens. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007