Review of TheatreWorks production of the musical, "Violet": A disfigured girl's Journey of Healing.
Leave it to TheatreWorks to bring to the Bay Area a thoroughly delightful recent musical from off-Broadway, find a uniformly strong cast, and give it a simple, polished production that lets it shine. Violet has an unlikely subject for a musical: a girl, horribly disfigured by an accident at age 13, travels from North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma to find a television preacher to heal her scars.
Composer Jeanine Tesori and writer and lyricist Brian Crawley have adapted Doris Betts' short story, The Ugliest Pilgrim, using a blend of blues, gospel and folk music. Violet captures the era of the sixties, the setting of the south and the spirit of the individual characters in a smoothly integrated work.
The story unfolds in two timeframes. One follows Violet Karl (Kelli Maguire) on her bus ride across the South; she encounters a couple of young army officers, Sergeant Grady "Flick" Fliggins (Michael Gene Sullivan) and Corporal Montgomery "Monty" Harrill (Jonathan Rhys Williams) along the way. Their ensuing relationships are central to Violet's journey of discovery and growth.
Played against this story, we see, in flashbacks, how the young Violet (Chelsea Morgan Stock) was injured at age thirteen and how she learned to cope with it. Living with her father (Remi Sandri) up in that isolated region of North Carolina and dealing with harassment from the local townspeople and her school mates, she develops a tough facade barely masks the indomitable spirit that pushes her to Tulsa.
At the center of this production is Maguire's Violet. Maguire focuses on the character's bright side; her spirit and determination are more evident than her uncertainty and insecurity. From the start, Violet's good-natured optimism take charge and carry her through the challenges. Maguire's strength came through vocally too, with tireless singing in a strong but rarely brassy belt.
As the young Violet, Stock was captivating. Her blend of youthful charm and wounded soul made her, if anything, more complex than the older Violet. With considerable experience to her credit, Stock never overplayed her hand and brought to her role remarkable depth and understanding.
Remi Sandri gave the role of Violet's father a suitable mixture of stoic reserve and fatherly concern. His gruffness is tempered with warmth and Sandri gives a deeply felt, convincing portrayal of a father coping with his role in his daughter's tragedy.
As the two army officers, Sullivan and Williams exhibit a delightful rapport and cleanly delineated characters. Sullivan's introverted, intense, and emotionally sensitive Flick--and Williams' confident, extroverted, and somewhat superficial Monty--both experience journeys of their own as a result of their encounter with Violet.
Director Robert Kelley and his designers (Tom Langguth for sets, Ardith Ann Gray for costumes and Pamila Gray for lighting) kept Violet simple and direct, with an uncomplicated staging and clean, uncluttered visuals. A central playing area with a built in turntable flanked in the back by platforms created a flexible playing area that easily and clearly adapted to the changes in both time and place.
With the intelligent wedding of story and music, cast and character, design and direction, TheatreWorks presents a vibrant engaging evening of theatre with this production of Violet.
Kelly Snyder is a freelance reviewer of opera and theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also works as the Assistant Manager of Estate Services at Stanford University's Office of Development. Kelly also writes for San Francisco Frontlines, San Jose Living, and Le Concertographe. Occasionally, he performs Gilbert & Sullivan roles with the Lyric Theatre in San Jose. For information on upcoiming Pocket Opera performances, visit http://www.pocketopera.org/
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