Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Violet
Stunning, Beautiful, and Affecting Musical

Tabard Theatre Company

Also see Patrick's reviews of Head of Passes and Talley's Folly and Richard's reviews of In a Word and Sister Play


Anthone Jackson and Jocelyn Pickett
Violet, the musical, hasn't been seen in this area since 1999, and it's long overdue. One of the best from composer Jeanine Tesori with a book by Brian Crawley, it's a compelling, humorous, and touching tale (based on the short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts), with toe-tapping, lively music borrowing from various Southern idioms. Winner of several Off-Broadway awards in 1997, it had a few regional productions before receiving a concert revival in New York in 2013, which led to a Broadway production the following year. Tabard Theatre's outstanding production, directed by local favorite Jay Manley with superb leads and a strong ensemble, does it more than proud, and is a memorable show that will dwell in your heart and mind for a long time.

Violet (Jocelyn Pickett), in her twenties, suffered a horrible, disfiguring accident at age 12 when her father's axe blade flew off its handle. Now it's 1964 and she's taking her first-ever bus ride with her meager life savings from North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to be healed by a televangelist she's seen working miracles. Accustomed to the shocked reactions of strangers, Violet is surprised when she meets two young soldiers who don't seem to mind her scar, on their way to Fort Smith. Flick (Anthone Jackson), being black, also knows what it's like to face abuse, and tentatively bonds with Violet, although she rejects his comparison of their difficulties: "What do I want with Black skin?" Monty (Adrien Gleason) finds he's attracted to the feisty, frank Violet, her determination and grit winning his admiration.

We get flashbacks showing Violet's father (Donald W. Sturch) and young Violet (Ginger Hurley) in various scenes that depict the accident and her dealings with ignorance and prejudice. We meet plenty of colorful bus characters that help us remember the era, a country in turmoil, poised on the brink of change. As the bus makes its way to Tulsa, Violet's relationships with the two men get complicated, and when they part in Fort Smith, Monty declares he will wait for her at the station when she's done seeing her preacher. Flick, conflicted, observes with longing but says nothing. Violet, too, is poised on the brink of change.

Ultimately, Violet's journey tells us much about discovery, identity, and race, but also about the healing power of love, the kind of love that sees the inner soul and cares not about appearance. It's also a gentle reminder that we all carry our scars, visible or invisible, and we all seek kindness and acceptance on our road to healing. A powerful, universal message told in the very specific story of one young woman's journey, with grace and humor and uplifting music.

Pickett is a revelation as Violet, possessing an impressive voice and fine acting skills. Her counterpart Hurley as young Violet shows terrific singing and acting chops already; hopefully we'll see more of her locally before she heads off to a theatrical career. Jackson's velvety vocals in his solo "Let it Sing" and duet "Bring Me to Light" enhance his excellent portrayal of Flick—just the right balance of tough and tender. Gleason shines as Monty, who could come off badly if not played right, but here earns our sympathy. Sturch as Violet's father also has the challenge of winning our compassion, and manages to deliver a complex, layered character.

The entire ensemble sports first-rate voices, most of them wowing us in their solo turns, and also delighting with their abilities to portray numerous characters. Ruth E. Stein does middle-aged Southern women (think "Mama's Family") with a vengeance, then turns around and does a hooker equally well. Anaseini Katoa rocks the house as a torch singer, and Juanita Harris brings it down with gospel. Ronnie Grigsby, Shawn Bender, Michael Rhone, and Tim Reynolds all present distinct characters and get to dish up wonderful vocals.

The band, led by Samuel Cisneros, is like another character in the show, and excels with the demanding variety of musical styles. Nick Nichols' splendid lighting and Migi Oey's efficient set help move the action. Director Manley makes great use of the Tabard's intimate space, making us feel like we're on the bus with Violet.

In short, it rarely gets better than this—this seldom-seen gem will win your applause, and steal your heart if you let it.

Violet with music by Jeanine Tesori and book by Brian Crawley, presented by Tabard Theatre Company, 29 N. San Pedro St., San Jose; through May 3, 2015. Tickets $15 - $38, available at 408-679-2330 or at http://www.tabardtheatre.org


Photo: Edmond Kwong/Imagewurx


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith


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