Brian Crawley (Book & Lyrics): Jeanine Tesori (Music)
Based on the The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts
Based on the The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts
It’s September 4, 1964 in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, as a wide-smiling, young woman with a small suitcase packed full of anticipation and hope boards a Greyhound bus. Bound for the church of Hope and Glory in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she seeks a miracle healing of “the scar that cuts a rainbow across my cheek.”
As her fellow passengers bounce on their suitcases (serving on this stage as bus seats), our feet begin to tap while they sing a richly robust, “I’ll find out where this highway takes me; you know I got to travel on.” With voices rising in great waves of a cappella harmony, it becomes difficult not to hum along as we each realize, like they, that on this bus we have “left my troubles all behind me, back there when I climbed on board.”
Fortunate for us, we are about to journey with these fine, Southern folks – blacks and whites recently integrated to sit side-by-side — across the states of Tennessee and Arkansas into Oklahoma. We are all in fact “On Our Way” in Bay Area Musical’s rousing, uplifting, and glory-hallelujah production of Violet, the 1997, award-winning Off-Broadway and 2014 Broadway musical by Brian Crawley (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music).
Twenty-something Violet has a horribly disfigured face that causes everyone who meets her to turn away in shock, scorn, and/or pity – a childhood wound from a sudden-flying ax-head in a wood-chopping accident that scars both her and her regret-filled father’s lives. That scar is invisible to us since before us we only see a sunny-faced, golden-haired Violet who is visibly excited to be heading to Oklahoma to feel the healing hand of the evangelist whose miracles she has supposedly witnessed on her small-screened TV.
Even the skepticism of fellow passengers she meets and their sometimes laughter and kidding of her naivite about such a sudden-cure cannot lower Violet’s unbounded optimism for receiving a new face – one that Violet describes while looking at movie magazines as borrowing hair from Elke Summer, chin from Judy Garland, and nose from Grace Kelley. As Violet, Juliana Lustenader employs beautifully pure, hope-filled vocals to sing in “All to Pieces” how, after her miracle, she could then “shine like a moonbeam on the silk of a ball gown” and “could be someone lovely, turning heads on her first night in town.”
|Juliana Lustenader, Kim Larson, Jon-David Randle & Jack O’Reilly|
Juliana Lustenader’s Violet is indeed intent on being outwardly pretty even as she meets people who — once they are over the initial shock of seeing her — soon forget the scar and begin to see how fun and attractive she actually is as a person. Over a game of poker where she uses the skills taught her by her father, Violet wins both money and two new friends — young soldiers, Flick and Monty, traveling to Fort Smith, Arkansas. To their surprise, each begins to find this bold, brassy gal to be one that is somehow stirring feelings within them.
|Jon-David Randle & Jack O’Reilly|
Jack O’Reilly’s Monty is a show-off, tease, and jokester who brings a crooning, tenor voice full of cockiness and confidence as he battles wits with Violet in “Question and Answer.” As the miles and time together accumulate, his bickering and poking at Violet begins to shift into genuine desire and longing as together his voice and demeanor soften into a plea-and-love-filled “Promise Me Violet,” singing “I’ve been waiting for a lifetime to get your sweet kiss.”
But by then, his buddy, Flick, is also finding he has growing love for Violet. However, Flick’s approaches are more on the subtle sidelines since he is black; she is white; and this is 1964 in the South. Less scornful of her blind faith in the powers of the TV evangelist than the fully doubting Monty, Jon-David Randle as Flick encourages her to pursue her dreams and to be the kind of person who says yes rather than no. He brings a trumpeting, triumphant voice to “Let It Sing,” with his own evangelical spirit and intensity growing to a heart-pounding level, suddenly jumping to heaven-high, sweetly soft notes to convince Violet, “You’ve got to give it room and let it sing.” Time and again throughout the journey and show, Mr. Randle’s vocals electrify the atmosphere.
Likewise, Ms. Lustenader shows immense abilities to deliver in every bend of the journey’s road the country, bluegrass, honky-tonk rock, and blues melodies of Jeanine Tesori with striking clarity of purpose and tone. She also gives us a Violet that we never question her internal strength, her natural likeability, her sure-fired wit, or her deep-held hurt from an outward wound she dares not look in a mirror to see.
|Clay David & Choir|
When Violet finally does reach Oklahoma, we meet in person the Preacher we have earlier seen in one of her dreams but who turns out in real life to be more of a nightmare. Clay David – whom earlier has played both a gruff and gravelly-voiced bus driver and a sparkle-suited radio singer – comes close to stealing the entire show as an arm-flailing, high-stepping, glory-screaming evangelist whose well-practiced performance reaches levels of sheer ecstasy for his TV-studio audience (i.e., us). With a back-up of eight, robed choristers – themselves soon jumping, shuttering, and spinning near out-of-control – this Preacher moves into our aisles and comes close to having us walk the aisles for Jesus, so convincing is he. That is especially true when he is joined by the exuberant choir and by the Mahalia-Jackson-like, gospel vocals of soloist Lula Buffington (an impressive Tanika Baptiste). But for all the show-stopping antics of this so-called preacher, Violet soon learns that if there is to be a miracle performed, it will not be by this buffoon but will be manifest through her own self-determination and the transformation others will immediately see in her.
|Eric Neiman & Miranda Long|
From the beginning of the journey, a young Violet roams the bus, shadowing her grown version. The Young Vi looks intently at each passenger and especially at the older Violet with a mixture of curiosity, amusement, and maybe just a bit of skepticism. Scenes of Violet’s younger life intermingle throughout the trip, including the horrors of the accident itself and its aftermath. Miranda Long brings not only a sparkling voice and spunky spirit as Young Vi but also an acting and singing maturity that goes well beyond her youth.
As Violet’s Father, Eric Neiman embodies a man tortured by both the premature loss of his wife and of the horrific accident his hands enacted on his daughter. His moving moment of mea culpa comes when he sings to Violet during a dream in a sad, remorseful, but totally glorious voice, “That’s What I Could Do,” asking her, “Forgive me, you’re my only star … look how bright … you are.”
Like the afore-mentioned Clay David, many of the actors play as many as five different roles. Notable cameos include those by Shay Oglesby-Smith who is both a babbling, nosy, but generously kind Old Lady on the bus (and one with a great singing voice) as well as a hooker on the streets of Memphis. Jourdán Olivier-Verdé, Kim Larson, and even freshman-aged Tucker Gold each get their turns as bus driver while also taking on roles as varied as radio singers, choir members, and of course, various sorts of bus passengers.
Dyan McBride directs this large, talented cast of fifteen with many touches of genius. Besides brilliant uses of space and suitcases to create a swerving, bouncing bus, the director makes wonderfully effective use of stage-frozen moments to highlight an isolated scene. She breaks the fourth wall to bring us as audience into the play as the evangelical congregation and also ensures bus stops along the way occur seamlessly and in seconds to reveal stage-filling cafes, hotel rooms, and TV studio.
Those scenes of the South’s rural and urban ‘60s as well as a see-through back wall of wooden slabs and multiple doorways have been cleverly designed by Matthew McCoy, who also choreographed the ecstasy and the electricity of the ensembles’ forays into both revival and nightclub settings. The lighting of Eric Johnson creates colorfully magical transformations on the slatted backdrop of the stage. Anton Hedman’s sound design ensures not one lyric of this fine-voiced cast is lost or out-of-balance with the sounds of Jon Gallo’s excellent band of six. Finally, Brooke Jennings and Jacqueline Dennis respectively deserve abundant accolades for the array of 1960s attire and wigs that bring back – for some of us at least – many memories of growing up in those times when puffed-up hair, Sunday-go-to-church clothes, and hats and gloves made their way onto Greyhound buses.
Violet is a musical whose combination of church-aisle, back-ally, and hillbilly styles departs from the normal Broadway fare (especially when first produced in 1997). Violet is also a story of one young woman’s journey to discover where her true beauty lies and in doing so, to find true love and acceptance in a place and person most unlikely for the times. Bay Area Musicals uplifts this already inspiring story to a truly memorable, exciting level through ingenuous direction; soaring voices and instrumentation; and character depictions full of quirk, heart, and genuinely believable emotion.
Rating: 5 E
Violet continues through March 17, 2019 as a production by Bay Area Musicals at the Alcazar Theatre at 650 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.bamsf.org/assassins/for performances Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m.
Photo Credits: Ben Krantz
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