Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Hot Summer Nights, the annual summer theater program of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) opens its 2002 season with a solid production of the challenging 1997 Off-Broadway musical Violet.
This show, which takes place in 1964, centers on a young woman, Violet, who bears a facial scar from a childhood accident. She 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, the young lady meets two soldiers, one white and one black. The three teach and learn many life lessons from each other 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's work here surpasses that of her most recent show, Thoroughly Modern Millie, for which she was nomianted for a 2002 Tony Award for Best Score. She incorporates various song styles such as gospel, 60s pop, country, and blues, all of which are appropriate to the time period, and the result is an interesting and rich musical score. Crawley's lyrics often come quickly, and his words are efficient, descriptive, witty, and provide necessary depth for the primary characters. Musical highlights include "On My Way" (with a wonderful choral arrangement), "Promise Me, Violet", and "Bring Me To Light". The book has both its strong and weak points. This story of relationships is a difficult one to tell, and for the most part is well done. Humorous moments are interspersed throughout, and accurate social commentary is provided, both to the benefit of the piece. However, the motivations for some relationships are not adequately communicated to render them fully believable. Also, the flashbacks and daydreams used in the show, though essential in providing necessary backstory, are sometimes lacking in clarity and prove to be confusing for some audience members.
In the significant title role is Ashley Brown, who received critical acclaim last season as Cunegonde in Candide in CCM's Mainstage Series. Ms. Brown possesses an attractive, natural, and expressive singing voice that is suited to the material and she fully conveys the complexities of the character through her acting. As Flick, the African-American solider, Keldon LaVar Price displays a soulful voice with an impressive range, and does his best to flesh out a slightly underwritten role. Geoff Packard is vocally strong as Monty, the white soldier, but his portrayal is not fully convincing, though acceptable. As Violet's dad, Leo Nouhan provides a touching and detailed performance. Julie Kotarides is likewise endearing and winning as Young Violet, despite being too old (and tall) for the role. The other talented cast members, each of whom play multiple roles, include Emily Randolph Jones, Angel Reda, Matt Risch, Brian Sears, and Jasmin Walker.
Director Richard E. Hess establishes a consistent and appropriate tone for the piece and does well in accurately communicating the cultural attitudes of the 60s South. In addition, the transitions between the many scenes are generally effective and smooth. The difficult task of clearly defining the flashback/daydreaming sequences is handled satisfactory for the most part, with the scene at the preacher's chapel the least well rendered. Greg Anthony confidently leads an energetic six-piece onstage band. Unfortunately, several musical tempos seem unnecessarily rushed, causing some lyrics to be unintelligible (even to those already knowing the score).
The set design by Mark Halpin consists of many props and small pieces moved about the stage to form various locales such as the bus, a nightclub, and a hotel room. An attractive backdrop showing a sky with clouds is also used. The costumes by Rebecca Senske are attractive, realistic and setting appropriate. James H. Gage provides a strong lighting design that includes different colors that highlight the sky backdrop.
Violet is an ambitious musical to stage and CCM proves to be up to the task, despite some minor criticisms. The talented cast capably performs the wonderful score, and the thought-provoking show is one that Cincinnati audiences should embrace. The show continues in repertory with Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill and We Tell The Story through August 18, 2002. For tickets, call (513) 556-4183.