The story of Violet, playing now, is thus: Set in the Deep South during the early days of the civil rights movement, this powerful musical tells the touching story of a young woman accidentally scarred on the face as a child. Hoping that a TV evangelist can cure her, Violet embarks on a long bus ride from her sleepy North Carolina town through Memphis to Oklahoma. Along the way, she meets two young soldiers who teach her about love, courage and the true meaning of beauty.
When I learned Violet would be directed by Hayter, who helmed last season’s Ovation Award-nominated production of Parade, I couldn’t wait to go. The director did not disappoint, once again using an elegantly minimalist stage to transform the Chance’s intimate space into something expansive and engaging. Brilliantly re-teaming with Parade‘s scenic designer, Fred Kinney, Hayter uses vintage suitcases as both the dominant stage dressing and universal prop – an inspired move.
Beyond the charm of the set, the magic of this production is the music. Monika Peña‘s voice imbues adult Violet with the soul she needs to hold your attention. Her counterpart, Rebeka Hoblik, is uncannily cast as Young Violet in both appearance and vocal chops.
When the cast comes together as a chorus for the final number, their communal voice is so powerful that it evokes chills.
Natasha Reese, who plays a number of roles in the show and is a member of the ensemble, raises the bar for everyone else’s performances when, as “Lula Buffington,” she delivers the killer solo of the show.
Now for some spoilers, so please stop here if you want to avoid them!
With due credit for the quality of the production, the power of the vocal performances, the delightful set and the excellence of the acting across the board, I found the source material problematic. There’s a deliberate juxtaposition between Violet’s disfiguring facial scar (which the audience has to imagine– there’s no makeup effects, which is normal for this play) and love interest Flick’s (Taylor Fagins) black skin… in the South in 1964. This white woman has become so obsessed with her scar and her perception of how it has adversely effected her life that she seems to believe its impact on her opportunities to be at least equal to the impact of being black in that place/time.
During the course of the show, the audience sees how delusional this equivalency is both first-hand, when Flick is deterred from pursuing a romance with a white woman more than once, and second-hand when Monty (Jordan Schneider) notes that Flick could have been arrested for sitting at a diner counter as recently as one year before and when Flick comments on his limited career options. Despite this, Flick seems to have little enough problem with Violet’s entitlement, naivety, poor self-esteem and questionable choices that he falls in love with her over the course of a single bus ride.
Flick’s readiness to accept Violet with all of her flaws made me curious about what Sutton Foster and Joshua Henry‘s chemistry must have been like in the 2014 Broadway version of this show to earn them both Tony nominations for these roles. The play’s foundation is the “You don’t know you’re beautiful… That’s what makes you beautiful” trope, and I don’t think the playwright, Brian Crawley, is successful enough in selling Violet’s inner beauty to pull that off.
Let’s be clear, though, that any reservations I have about this show are due to the material – not the production. I hope you’ll check it out for yourself and report back on what you think. The music, the performances and the overwhelming charm of the Chance are well worth the modest investment for tickets, and if you walk out debating it, as I did, you’ll know you’ve had a robust and complete evening at the theatre.
Violet runs at the Chance Theater through March 4. Learn more and grab tickets at ChanceTheater.com.
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