Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
So it's not surprising that Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (book and lyrics) would adapt Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" for the stage. The result is the harmonically lovely but dramatically meager Violet, the story of a young woman disfigured by a childhood accident who sets out on an overnight bus trip to seek a healing at the hands of an evangelist whose televised antics have enraptured her. But while journeys can be inherently dramatic, this peregrination, produced by Bay Area Musicals and currently on stage at the Alcazar Theatre, fails to be much more than a meander along a path rutted by good intentions.
Violet (played by Juliana Lustenader as a young woman and Miranda Long as a girl) has lived most of her life with a face that was scarred when the ax blade her father was using to chop firewood flew off its handle. Taunted by bullies and feeling unlovable, Violet has had to live under the constant specter of being judged on the basis of how she looks rather than who she truly is. Not unlike Flick (Jon-David Randle), the black Army sergeant she meets on the bus from her home in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Flick is traveling with Monty (Jack O'Reilly), a younger, white corporal and brother in arms. It's 1964 and racism and the growing conflict in Vietnam hover over the proceedings like a hawk circling prey that are aware of the threats and are either powerless to overcome them (Flick) or preparing to face them head-on (Monty). The three will share the two-day ride to Tulsa with a bus full of mostly nondescript characters.
While the story feels like something more suited to the Hallmark Channel, the cast assembled by director Dyan McBride make the most of every opportunity they are given. Juliana Lustenader exhibits a tender vulnerability and naivete that aligns perfectly with her character, and her gentle soprano melds beautifully with Tesori's intricate harmonies. As Young Vi, Miranda Long has a voice far bigger than her body, a sort of "junior belt" that presages a successful career on the stagethough she would benefit from becoming a bit more expressive with her eyes.
But the biggest voice belongs to Jon-David Randle, whose performance as Flick thrills the crowd at the Alcazar over and over, as he reaches deep into his core to pull out wondrous notes and phrasings. Clay David, who plays multiple roles, is especially appealing as the TV preacher Violet seeks out for her healing. He has a charlatan's gleam in his eye, and perfectly recreates the intonations we've come to expect from fire and brimstone orators. If he ever decides to give up acting, he might find a lucrative new career behind a pulpit. The entire ensemble, in fact, is quite talented, though Jourdán Olivier-Verdé deserves special notice for his work as a member of the preacher's TV choir, dancing and singing with an abandon that will have you believing he truly is being possessed by the holiest of ghosts.
Still, with Crawley's rather thin characterizations and gossamer-thin plot, Matthew McCoy's unfortunate set design (that somehow manages to pull focus from the onstage action despite its unattractiveness), and McBride's lackluster direction, the laudable efforts of this fine cast amount to a journey to nowhere in particular.
Bay Area Musicals' Violet, through March 17, 2019, at the Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $35-$65, and are available now by calling 415-340-2207 or visiting www.bamsf.org.