With the popularity of the Mega-Musical, regional theaters have been hard pressed to find new works from Broadway to include in their seasons. The European import, occasional Kushner or McNally play, or infrequent Sondheim musical aside, there is little that is suitable or even available from Broadway for them to mount. As a result, regional theaters have been drawing from Off-Broadway, filling their seasons with shows like Quills, How I Learned to Drive and now, Violet.
Winner of the 1997 New York Drama critics Circle Award for Best Musical, Violet had its West Coast premier at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle on October 22. Based on the short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, it is a Wizard of Oz-style quest story: a disfigured woman goes on a pilgrimage, seeking an audience with an all-powerful faith healer in an attempt to regain her lost beauty, acquiring along the way traveling companions who teach her valuable lessons about herself and the meaning of beauty. Violet has a rather remarkable pedigree. The music is by Jeanine Tesori, who recently composed the score for Lincoln Center's recent production of Twelfth Night, and who is currently working on a Broadway-bound adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie being produced by Whoopi Goldberg. The book and lyrics are by Brian Crawley, and Susan H. Schulman, director of The Secret Garden, Circle in the Square's Sweeney Todd, and the current Broadway revival of The Sound of Music, recreated her original New York staging.
For the most part, they succeeded in creating a touching portrait of a scarred woman and her journey towards self-discovery, and manage to do so without once slipping into sappy 'movie of the week' territory. Jeanine Tesori, using a palate of gospel, bluegrass and R&B, has created a rich, emotional score that has powerful moments for soloists and ensemble, and the finales of each act are worth the price of admission alone. The only reservation I have with her music is that while she effectively uses the various musical styles to differentiate between characters, race, locale, etc., she fails to establish any sense of period. The show is definitely set in 1964, and aside from a few guitar licks reminiscent of a kinder, gentler Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar, the songs sound as if they could be recorded by K.D. Lang or inserted into Rent with a little more amplification.
Brian Crawley's book is strong and makes the argument that more of the show should have been left in dialogue form. His lyrics, however, sometimes fail to reach the level of the book, and far too often valuable information gets lost in the music, gets sung too quickly to catch, or gets swallowed by other characters 'talking' at the same time.
The show's greatest strengths come from Susan Schulman and Lauren Ward, who have both been involved with Violet from the start. Susan's direction is fluid and seamless, with actions and scene changes akin to ballet choreography. With a set consisting mainly of naugahyde chairs, she weaves a magical fable in which a bus can transform into a bar or a church within seconds, solely through the audience's and the actor's imaginations. Her synchronization of young Vi and older Violet create moments that are hysterical one moment, and enough to break your heart the next.
Lauren, who received a Drama Desk nomination and a Drama League Award for Violet, gives an incredible performance as a woman who had her life taken away at 13 and is striving desperately to get it back. Without any special effects make-up, she plays Violet as a woman whose scars on her heart go far beyond the supposed scars on her face. Her Violet still maintains, however, the naivete and purity of 25 going on 13, which meshes perfectly with her younger self, played with equal brilliance and sensitivity by Vicki Noon, who seems to be 13 going on 30. The rest of the cast is strong, and bring a fullness to what are, for the most part, sketchily drawn characters who seem to change motivations in order fulfill the needs of the story, rather than for any organic reason.
Overall, Violet provides a breath of fresh air for the American Musical by giving us a show that is not dependent on special effects or flashy sets. As a result, its simplicity is allowed to resonate more fully and make a more personal statement within each audience member. With its simple set requirements and a complex leading character, it should enjoy a success in regional and community theaters around the country, finally giving them a new musical to add to their seasons.
Violet runs at ACT through November 15. Tickets range from $25 - $38, with $10 available to persons 25 years and younger (with valid ID). Tickets are available through the box office by calling (206) 292-7676.