Regional Reviews: Boston
Based on the short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, Violet chronicles the pilgrimage of a young woman who leaves her North Carolina home and boards a Greyhound bus to meet a televangelist in Tulsa, Oklahoma, hoping that he can heal her hideous facial scar from a childhood accident. The disfigurement represents the pain that Violet shows to the world, but is merely the tip of the iceberg of her suffering. If the preacher's healing powers will make her beautiful, she has to believe that it will change her life and give her a new start. Not unlike a little girl from Kansas who went in search of her heart's desire, Violet's journey is a quest for love and self-fulfillment. Who she meets along the way and how they see her helps her to clarify and accept her vision of the person reflected in the mirror.
While Violet is not entirely sung through, the weight of the story is told through the musical numbers, and the cast boasts the vocal talent to bear the load. Alison McCartan (Violet) and Audree Hedequist (Young Violet) blend their voices seamlessly to convey that they are two parts of the same character. Their connection feels organic, whether they are sharing a song or a glance, and the strength of their individual performances increases exponentially when both are onstage. Hedequist is a young talent to watch. At the age of 12, she is already a Boston theater veteran with a couple of IRNE nominations to her credit. With her confidence and stage presence she brings to mind Sydney Lucas who originated the role of Small Alison in Fun Home.
McCartan's portrayal convinces us that she is the woman this girl would grow up to be. Independent, sometimes prickly and guarded, she knows how to take care of herself, but doesn't necessarily know how to get what she needs. Nor is she willing to admit to herself that she needs anything other than the preacher's healing touch. Her experiences with the two soldiers she meets on the bus, Flick (Dan Belnavis) and Monty (Nile Scott Hawver), open her mind and heart to possibilities that she had not considered. Everyone is moved by the power of Belnavis' voice when Flick gives Violet some very good, friendly advice ("Let It Sing"), and again when his tone is more rancorous ("Hard to Say Goodbye"). Hawver also shines whether Monty is showing off ("Last Time I Came to Memphis") or crooning sweetly ("Promise Me, Violet"). The chemistry among the three lead actors is genuine, infusing their scenes with a balance of sexual tension and comfortable camaraderie.
Kathy St. George can always be counted on for capturing the humor, but she also nails the pathos in her multiple roles as a fellow bus passenger, hotel hooker, and an old lady, and she rocks the red robe when she is called to duty as one of the gospel choir singers. John F. King gives a powerfully evocative performance in the role of the televangelist. Wearing a white suit and a megawatt smile, he shouts and trembles in a frenzied manner, rousing his followers to joy and rapture. He is so realistic that some in the audience might rush the stage to join in the healing service. Leaving behind the sacred for the profane, the scenes in the Memphis music hall are elevated by the stirring pipes of Tyla Collier, and King joins with Patrick Greeley and Stephen Markarian to form a melodic trio singing on Violet's radio.
Brian Crawley's book relies on flashbacks and dreams to fill in Violet's back story without resorting to an abundance of "telling." Her deceased father (a sympathetic Michael Mendiola) appears in several scenes, including one in which he teaches Young Violet how to play poker ("Luck of the Draw") and another depicting the crucial moment of the accident that scarred her. Violet's internal life is far richer than her external experiences and Crawley mines it for the lyrics that give expression to who she really is. In fact, most of the characters open up in their songs to advance the story, including the nameless bus passengers who are on their own journeys.
Musical director Matthew Stern (piano/conductor) leads half a dozen musicians on keyboard, violin, cello, guitar, bass and drums to capture the rich diversity of Jeanine Tesori's score. As Violet's bus ride takes her from North Carolina through Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, and on into Tulsa, the musical styles reflect the local culture, ranging from traditional folk to country, R&B, blues, and finally the gospel anthems of the preacher and his choir. Enhancing the sounds of the latter at each performance, eight to twelve members of local gospel choirs join the cast onstage during the rousing "Raise Me Up," which features standout Carolyn Saxon as Lula Buffington testifying to the Lord.
Tony Award-winning composer (Fun Home) Tesori and librettist/lyricist Crawley first mounted the musical Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1997. Despite receiving numerous awards, the production got mixed reviews and the run was cut short. After a favorable reception of a revised version at a one-night-only concert at New York City Center, Violet finally made it to Broadway in 2014 starring Sutton Foster. Daigneault directed the Off-Broadway version at SpeakEasy in February, 2000, and proudly presents the New England premiere of the one-act Broadway iteration. Tesori will be in attendance at the January 21st performance and participate in a post-show talkback with the audience. That will be the icing on the celebratory 25th anniversary cake.
Violet, performances through February 6, 2016, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or speakeasystage.com.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Lyrics and Book by Brian Crawley, Based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, Directed by Paul Daigneault, Musical Direction by Matthew Stern, Choreography by David Connolly, Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, Sound Design by David Remedios, Associate Musical Direction by David Freeman Coleman; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Assistant Stage Manager, Zachary Tucker
Cast (in alphabetical order): Dan Belnavis, Tyla Collier, Patrick Greeley, Nile Scott Hawver, Audree Hedequist, John F. King, Stephen Markarian, Alison McCartan, Michael Mendiola, Carolyn Saxon, Kathy St. George