REVIEW: "Violet" — Costa Mesa Playhouse
Updated: Jun 20
"...Don't try to quote me from the Book of Suffering. I know its every page by heart!"
The disfigurement was an accident. The shim on her father’s hatchet came loose, the blade flew, and 13-year-old Violet, playing nearby, was forever left with a face “split in two.”
Twelve years later — now parentless, friendless, and nearly hopeless — she makes a 900-mile bus pilgrimage from North Carolina to glittering Tulsa in search of a miracle.
Can the TV evangelist she’s seen cure cancer also fix her face?
The multi-award-winning “Violet,” whose run finished today at the Costa Mesa Playhouse, now in their 55th season, is a musical as spirited as its spunky heroine. "Violet" is one of the most impressive small-scale tuners in histrionics, an intelligent work that promulgated composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist-librettist Brian Crawley to eminent heights. Splendidly staged by Jason Holland with skillful musical direction by Cynthia McGarity and a smart, masterful performance by an enthusiastic ensemble, this is a tale of tolerance and acceptance of its scarred title character who triumphs over conventional standards of beauty.
But this may actually be the most unlikely premise a musical has ever offered, even in a field that pushes the envelope — one that headlines a vengeful barber that supplies cannibalistic pastries, to a respectable doctor that regularly transforms into a hideous, depraved monster. But the unlikeliness doesn’t end there. Originally produced off Broadway in 1997, Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s “Violet” gently nudges this dour young woman, whose horrible scar (a scar unseen, left to the imagination of the audience) is accompanied by a frown so severe it nearly meets at the bottom, into a delicate love triangle with two soldiers in transit to Fort Smith. Oh, and one’s black. And it’s 1964.
But the most unlikely thing about Violet is that it makes these troubling outré elements a work of great resonance and beauty and joy (it’s also surprisingly sexy). At its best, Violet is a rare example of how song can work to bind all the elements of theatre — plot, theme, character and emotion — molded together into moments so rich they are almost overwhelming. Integrating a number of tangy musical flavors to help propel the narrative, “Violet” features multiple genres, from gospel and bluegrass to Memphis blues, to honky-tonk rock.
Loosely based on Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgram," the musical follows Violet (Melissa Musial; “Into the Woods,” “Avenue Q”) as she waits for a Greyhound bus in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, with a ticket, a suitcase, and a heart full of expectation. For a moment she sees herself as a young girl who then went by “Vi,” (Ellie Adria Smallwood), carefree and singing a folk song ("Water in the Well"), before her face was horribly disfigured in that accident. A local's nosy question breaks Violet's reverie, prompting her to pin all her hopes on the healing she expects to receive from a TV evangelist in Tulsa who claims to have miraculous powers, that will help her transcend her provincial little town ("Surprised").
Violet, who is habitually stubborn and prickly, has tried doctors, snake handlers and a Catholic church over the years to be healed. She has an acquired toughness due to the torture she suffered by other children, especially the Elum brothers who said the axe accident was God’s way of punishing her because she and her father didn’t go to church. As the bus departs the station, the passengers muse as to where this journey might lead them ("On My Way").
Later in the trip the passengers pile off the bus to get some food at a rest stop diner in Kingsport, Tennessee ("M&M's"). In the grill, Violet meets two poker-playing soldiers, Flick (Justin Keane Crawford; “Hairspray,” “Little Shop of Horrors”) and Monty (Hunter Berecochea; “Life Could be a Dream,” “Next to Normal”). Flick is a black sergeant in his early thirties. “You do what you gotta’ do, but in the end you do it alone. You choose your road, then you walk it, one step at a time.” Monty is a younger white corporal, a paratrooper, rough around the edges and fighting his own demons.
Monty comes across as a bit self-consumed, but not purposefully so, and described by Violet as a boy in the skin of a man. Both are bound for Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Violet asks to join their game. Sensing an opportunity to clean up with this “ugly” girl, they agree. As she mistrustfully recuts the cards, a memory is stirred on stage right (“Luck of the Draw”), and we see her father (played by Johnny Fletcher; “The Addams Family,” “Shrek”) teaching her younger self to play the game: “First you set the ante, say a penny. Then before the deal’s begun, we both ante up our pennies — not too many, just the one.”
For Violet’s father, the lesson is a two-fold opportunity. First, to get some math into the sad girl, who hates school because she is mercilessly teased there, and second, he figures by learning poker, it will give her something to do with those boys “when the time comes for that.” The melody is passed and elaborated back and forth, among the five characters in two different time periods drumming up a dozen different feelings: the father’s pleasure in having something to offer his daughter; her reluctant enjoyment of that; the soldiers’ bewildered interest in the strange woman who “schneiders” them at cards; and the grown Violet’s emerging awareness that sadness, being somewhat random, may also be somewhat amenable to repair.
Tesori sets the complicated poker scenario to a catchy banjo and fiddle tune befitting Violet’s mountain upbringing. But it’s not relevant only because it sounds like the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s also an indication, through the ineffable qualities of music alone, that there's something worth being hopeful about.
As the long bus ride continues, tensions build among this odd triangle, particularly during a wonderfully choreographed scene at a Memphis roadhouse where the trio passes the night together. Crawley’s book wisely makes no coy, virginal heroine out of Violet — she more than holds her own with the drinking, gambling soldiers, and invites either into her bed. Only one accepts.
So much of “Violet” succeeds by welding levels and modes of information in song. Violet's number,“All to Pieces” borrows Nashville tropes to anatomize the movie star looks she’d like to achieve, and Ms. Musial delivers blazingly. Mr. Crawford’s Flick also has a gospel-tinged barn-burner called “Let it Sing” that builds on the bones of an army basic-training chant to argue for self-sufficiency, bringing the house down.
In addition to introducing various secondary characters on the bus, we see flashbacks to scenes depicting the child Violet (Ms. Smallwood) and her father (Mr. Fletcher).
A loving, though guilt-edged relationship — Father’s carelessness was compounded when he failed to get the best medical care — the subplot (with a terrific performance by Ms. Musial finally accepting her father's forgiveness) neatly establishes Violet’s vulnerable nature and painful insecurity.
When Violet arrives at the tele-church where the tongue-talkin’ preacher (Wade Wooldridge; “Spamalot,” “Oscar and Felix”) broadcasts his miracle healing service, the house suddenly turns into an old fashioned revival. The gospel numbers, featuring Lula’s solos and mind-blowing riffs (Natasha Reese; “Avenue Q,” “Violet” – Chance Theater) are no less rousing for being de rigueur, and the talented Mr. Wooldridge does a terrific, manic spin on a Southern televangelist who isn’t quite what he seems (you may notice the subtle but obvious parallel between Violet’s disenchantment with the preacher and Dorothy’s encounter with the Wizard of Oz).
The supporting characters, no less important to the story, were gifted, artistic and polished in their roles. Melinda Messenger-Stout (“Gypsy,” “Little Women”) presented an Old Lady on the bus and a Hotel Hooker with just-right brilliance. Keith Morgan (“Titanic,” “Bonnie & Clyde”) as Leroy Evans, proved as versatile a thespian as ever, and Rob Bergman (“Dracula,” “All Shook Up”), was amazingly adept. Eileen Goodwin also played the part of Lula alternately. The entire ensemble rendered transcendent harmonies and tones together, effectively balancing and supporting the story sequences.
Set Design is by Michael Serna, Costume Design is by Laurie Martinez and Lighting Design is by Blake Huntley. Sound Design is handled by Kaden Cutler and Mike Brown, and Stage Manager is Ryan Kenney. Band members include Chris Ring, David Anthony, Dave Pednault, Dominic White, Shane Stronks, Music Director Drew McGarity, Ivan Elizondo and Carlos Medina.
Costa Mesa Playhouse has been proudly staging quality affordable theater in Orange County for over 55 years. Don’t miss the upcoming “Lost in Yonkers,” Neil Simon's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning coming-of-age memory play, a tale of family dysfunction at its best, set to run January 24th through February 16th at this theatre.
The Show Report