Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Violet is based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts. The musical, which takes place in 1964, centers on a young woman who bears a facial scar from a childhood accident. Twentysomething Violet boards a bus from her small mountain town in rural North Carolina and heads towards Tulsa, where she hopes to be healed by a TV preacher. Along the way, she meets two soldiers, one white and one black. The three learn many life lessons during their journey. As the trip progresses, Violet also recalls her relationship with her father (whom she blames for the accident) and other childhood memories that have shaped the young lady into the somewhat hardened yet hopeful person that she is. In the end, Violet receives an emotional and spiritual healing far more important than the physical transformation she sought.
Violet is the work of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brain Crawley (lyrics and book). The music consists of many soaring melodies full of passion and color. Tesori is the composer of other Broadway shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek, Caroline, or Change, and Fun Home, and is extremely varied in her musical soundeach work having a distinctive voice. For this musical, she incorporates numerous song styles such as gospel, 1960s pop, country, and blues, all of which are appropriate to the time period, and the result is an interesting and rich musical tapestry. Crawley's lyrics often come quickly, and his words are efficient, descriptive, and witty, and they provide necessary depth for the primary characters. Musical highlights include "On My Way," the plaintive "Lay Down Your Head," "Promise Me, Violet," and "Bring Me to Light." There are several wonderful choral arrangements present as well.
Crawley's book centers on some complex relationships and broken people, but is told with sufficient empathy and care. Humorous moments are interspersed throughout, and accurate social commentary is provided, both to the benefit of the piece. The flashbacks and daydreams used in the show, though essential in providing necessary backstory, sometimes lack clarity, and the story is a bit episodic.
Director D. Lynn Meyers knows her way around this piece, having directed it back in 1999 at ETC. She provides clear storytelling for what is a somewhat choppy script, and maintains a sense of urgency in the tone which helps to maintain audience engagement in this intermissionless version of the show. Patti James provides effective staging and limited choreography, which is important to the vibrancy of the show, since much of it takes place on a bus trip. Scot Wooley leads a great sounding four-piece band which can be seen on both sides of the performance space.
Violet is populated, in large part, by a cast of ETC regulars. In the title role is Brooke Steele, who has excelled in many comedic roles at ETC previously. Here, she shows significant depth in her acting, and sings with great confidence and skill. Ms. Steele conveys the emotional scars of a deeply hurt young lady, but also the hope she has for healing, as well as inner strength, sass, and social awkwardness. Her singing feels natural and organic, never forced. As Flick, the African-American solider, CCM junior Phillip Johnson-Richardson shows off impressive, soulful vocals, along with layered and dignified acting. Mark Beyer seems slightly miscast as Monty, the white soldier, but sings well and captures the cocky yet immature nature of the character.
As Violet's father, Charlie Clark provides a tender and detailed performance, and Delaney Ragusa is engaging and endearing as Young Violet. Phil Fiorini provides much comic relief, as well as a few touching moments, as the Preacher and the primary Bus Driver. The always dependable Kate Wilford displays versatility and gets some laughs as the Old Lady and Hotel Hooker, and Torie Wiggins lets loose with rousing gospel vocals in "Raise Me Up." The other talented cast members, each of whom play multiple roles with aplomb, include Stephen Kell, Sara Mackie, Andrew Maloney, and Patrick E. Phillips. The cast sounds especially exemplary on the choral portions of the score.
The all-wood, two-tiered unit set by Brian c. Mehring is versatile and functional, and his apt lighting includes a well-suited effect for the church scenes. Reba Senske's costumes are attractive, realistic, and setting appropriate.
Violet is an ambitious, challenging, and ultimately uplifting musical, and Ensemble Theater Cincinnati has wisely brought it back to close out this anniversary season. The wonderful cast brings this exceptional score and moving story to life with the guidance of the talented creative staff at ETC, and this is a show Cincinnati audiences should not miss.
Violet continues at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through May 22, 2016. For tickets, visit www.ensemblecincinnati.org or call (513) 421-3555.