Violet is funny, sad, charming, gritty, dramatic, confronting, nostalgic, simple, and sophisticated in its understandings of human nature all at once. I also believe it to be a significant piece that should attract a devoted following – both in the quality of its writing and the quality of this current production by Blue Saint at Chapel Off Chapel. Violet has a wonderfully strong cast, directed with flawless style by Mitchell Butel.
Set in the 1960s, the play presents Violet as a girl who grew up in backwoods America. Her face has been scarred by a nasty accident, and her adolescence has been marred by the callousness of neighbours, schoolmates and strangers alike, leaving damage to her self-esteem. We meet her boarding a bus for a very long trip to a big city where she has all her hopes set on someone she has seen on television being able to erase her scar. Among her fellow travellers is a pair of solders, young enough that high school is a recent memory, and only beginning to grow into their social and sexual maturity. The past is told in flashbacks, which later begin to interact with the present in clever and touching ways.
As drama it is at once both sophisticated and accessible. I found the interactions of the characters gripping. As a musical, the work is extraordinary too – the range of styles engaged, and the varying purposes the music serves is truly remarkable. That it is also easy to watch and follow, given the range and depth of craft beneath amazed me.
There is so much music in Violet – much of the drama and interaction moves through it, sometimes in surprising ways. This show also makes reference to such a range of American roots music styles, yet the pieces all contribute to the action – even songs that are showcased as standalone items make most poignant comment on the action. The songs, the choruses, duets, trios and other musical items are as varied as they are beautifully constructed.
Music is here both vehicle, commentary and establisher of both time and place – some of the musical items gave me aching nostalgia for television shows I scarcely remember from my childhood, yet made me recall what 45 years ago felt like. Composer Jeanine Tesori has won Tony awards for her work. I am in awe of her skill in the sheer effectiveness of this piece.
Based on an original story by Doris Betts, Violet was adapted by Brian Crawley to book and lyrics – I can see no way in which the adaptation to a musical causes any of the subtleties of a straight play to be lost. I really believe this to be a piece where we get the best of both worlds – there appears to be no compromise at all.
Violet is The Wizard of Oz for grownups – we can see from the outset that the fellow travellers are not actually deficient in anything – just young, bridling against the limitations of their backgrounds, and underneath their bravado they are aching for their questions to be answered. We see them grow as they travel, and negotiate the treacherous territory of adult relationships. We know at the outset that Violet cannot get her deepest wish from the man at the end of the quest – a television evangelist/faith healer cannot be anything but a disappointment – still we feel Violet’s pain as she tries to bargain with the realization that it’s nothing but show business. Her self-acceptance finally comes from her connection with her new friends. I enjoyed the final ambiguity of the relationships still playing out toward the end of the show – again, an indicator of the more grown-up understandings the piece is based on.
This is essentially an ensemble piece – though it’s ostensibly about Violet’s journey, the whole work is structured to let each major character shine in turn, and for so much of the time there is such interaction between them that it is this very aspect which impresses, both in the writing and the performances. As unfair as it seems to single out performers, granted how selflessly they give to the whole, both Sam Dodemaide as the present day Violet, and Luisa Scrofani as the young Violet both truly shine. Katie Elle Reeve is deliciously ripe as the nightclub singer, and Cherine Peck as Lula is a gospel-singing tour de force.
Steve Danielson as Monty delivers both the sexually charged magnetism and the nuances of the immature “boy next door” who is almost surprised by the powers his adult masculinity has given him. Barry Conrad as Flick gives us a performance of depth and nuance too, as the best friend, who finds himself in competition for the girl.
Jordan Pollard plays the faith healing television evangelist with such relish, and the vocally demanding role is met with such style and energy.
Deidre Rubinstein plays both a very concerned and emotional motherly type on the bus, and a comically voracious nightclub vamp, both to rich effect. Damien Bermingham as Violet’s father gives us the range from stoicism to deep emotional response through the various flashback scenes.
The Band under Martine Wengrow was exceptional. It’s a surprisingly complex score, belying the direct support for the drama, as well as the considerable range of other musical styles invoked. The Band did beautifully with all of this – it was tonally balanced throughout, and dynamic effects were beautifully judged.
Simon Greer’s set was simple but witty, and combined with Ross Graham’s lighting evoked the various locations along the way. Amy Campbell’s choreography similarly always served the text, yet – like the music – there was such surprising variety.
Chapel Off Chapel is theatre of some 200 seats – a classic Off-Broadway style intimate space. This is the kind of musical that shows why so much of the interesting work today is in the genre of Chamber musical- intimate theatres, smaller resources – real story telling on a human scale with performers creating enchantment with direct and simple means.
Violet is such an extraordinary work – I have booked tickets to see it again before it closes this Sunday March 20.