Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet is a musical with a large heart and very little of the flash and spectacle that characterizes too many Broadway productions these days. The show had a successful Off-Broadway run in 1997, winning numerous awards. Violet had had a limited run on Broadway in 2014 with a starry cast headed by Sutton Foster, but it remains a small-scale and subtle property best suited to an intimate theatre production.

Violet (Claire Adams) is an independent-minded young woman with shocking facial scars from a childhood accident. One point of genius in the show is that Violet’s disfigurement is not realistically depicted. We understand its gravity by the reactions of the other characters.

Alone in the world since the death of her Father (John Allsopp), Violet boards a bus in Spruce Pine, North Carolina in 1964 with the clear, if unlikely, destination of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her goal is to meet a famous television evangelist so that her face can be healed.

Like other quest stories, we’re talking Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful rather than Bilbo Baggins and his friends, the journey turns out to be more enlightening than the destination. Most of Violet’s adventures include two soldiers on their way to a new base. Monty (Matthew West) is a self-proclaimed ladies man who reveals much more depth than one initially presumes. Flick (Jamaul Bakare) is a self-aware African American who has an immediate connection with Violet. A dangerous thing in the Jim Crow South.

Boston saw a production of Violet that was performed on a moving bus. While I’m sure there were charms to this immersive experience, I’m guessing that Richard Israel’s transformation of the Actors Co-op space into a ¾ thrust with a creatively conceived bus (courtesy of Nicholas Acciani’s wonderfully effective scenic design) offers better sightlines and acoustics. Beyond the visual concept, Israel directs the show with a tightly focused eye on the emotional truth of the characters. He allows space for the relationships to build and we are drawn in without ever being conscious of it.

Adams anchors the show with an uncompromising portrait of a courageous young woman who’s lived a life filled with physical and emotional pain. Her powerful voice brings a raw edge to Tesori’s more dramatic musical moments. Bakare is a wonderfully engaging performer whose vocals soar effortlessly, and he is just as adept at mining the character’s sensitivity. West gives a wonderfully cocky and vigorous performance with lively vocals that fill the space.

Most of the excellent 12-member cast play multiple roles as riders on the bus and the citizens of the new cities they visit along the way. They all create memorable characterizations, but special mention must be made of Allsopp’s tower of strength turn as Violet’s Father, Lori Berg’s chameleon portrayals of the Old Lady and the Hotel Hooker, Kevin Shewey’s despicable Preacher, and Benai Boyd’s rousing vocals. They don’t overshadow the fact that her Lulu Buffington gets the best laugh in the show.

Tesori is one of our musical treasures (pun intended) and, though an early effort, Violet’s score shows that she was already the artist the world would come to admire with Caroline, or Change and Fun Home. She is particularly well served by the care Musical Director Taylor Stephenson takes with both the band and his cast.

Violet is the kind of show that gets under your skin and burrows into your heart, and this skilfull production only maximizes that connection.

Actors Co-op    May 11 – June 17, 2018