What does it mean to face the life events that changed your view of yourself? Is that journey outward or inward—alone or interpersonal?
Violet is a 2014 Broadway hit that Director Andrew Russell has stripped down to the ‘bone’ for this run at ArtsWest. The title character Violet (Brenna Wagner) has hopes that a TV faith healer in Tulsa, Oklahoma will heal her face. It was scarred in a freak accident. The creators—Brian Crawley wrote the lyrics and book to Jeanine Tesori’s music—respect the audience and leave it to us to imagine the scar. They had to assert themselves throughout the long development process, but as Crawley notes, “We weren’t about to drive a bus onstage, why not leave the scar to the imagination as well.” Russell followed the spirit and with scenic designer Christopher Mumaw kept the props and furniture to the barest minimum. What’s left is a musical examination of one woman’s vulnerable search for healing and acceptance with little else on stage to distract your attention.
Violet has saved up her money and is going from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa by Greyhound. Plenty of time to meet lots of people. This frames the opening number, “On My Way” that involves nearly the whole cast. Part of the interesting structure of this show is that we have a dual perspective on Violet. In this first number, for example, we meet her singing with her younger 13 year old self played by Eliza Ludlum. Costume designer K.D. Schill subtly shows her poverty by making the adult Violet’s skirt out of the same fabric as the 13 year old’s dress. The adult Vi is pursuing something that younger self has longed for since she saw the damage wrought by a flying blade that slipped off her father’s axe.
Brian Simmons plays Father with the right level of love and regret.
The year is 1964. During the journey we are reminded that Johnson is President and has just begun to send Special Forces to Vietnam.
She meets a pair of soldiers who know each other from their basic training days. One black, Flick (Jesse Smith), one white, Monty (Casey Raiha). The men, being men, compete for her attention. Clearly, part of this journey will be about this romantic triangle. Careful, this trip takes them right through the middle the south then traces the top edge of the Mason-Dixon line. This is just three years after the Freedom Rides spurred the Interstate Commerce Commission to end segregation on buses.
Monty offers himself as protector, since he thinks she is an innocent from the sticks. He sings to her that “things are mean and ugly in this world. I mean act ugly, be ugly, do ugly.” All right, he said it, he used the U word, ugly. She comes back with “that could only be the motto of a ‘pretty boy.'”
Violet and Flick are off to an equally fraught start, too, going back and forth in song about trading places. Violet blurts out she’d rather keep her face than be black. Then, just as fast, apologizes. Eventually Violet confesses to Flick she’d never talked to a Negro before, “Negroes being scarce” on the mountain where she grew up.
Tesori’s music moves with the bus … folk in North Carolina, country in Nashville, blues in Memphis, and gospel in Tulsa. Excellent musicianship by the 6 piece band with an occasional harmonica played by one of the members of the ensemble. After a night in Memphis listening to terrific Beale Street blues featuring Dedra D. Woods in a Tina Turner style flaring red dress, Monty, the pretty boy, finds his way to her bed. She accepts him. Still, she trades addresses with Flick and promises to write, but they have a tiff and she destroys his address when the soldiers disembark in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Violet gets to Tulsa and stumbles into the studio in time to see the gospel rehearsal featuring Marlette Buchanan singing lead in the “Raise Me Up” number. Part of the choreography by Alice Gosti is a waved hand across the cheek—a match to Violet’s scar.
Violet encounters more of the ugliness of the world when the faith healer (David Caldwell) tries to put her off by telling her to come to the service the following night. She needles him: “A service? Call it a show and you can take it to Vegas.” She’s primed for a healing, and his touch sends her into a powerful healing encounter with her inner father and 13 year old. She’s had her healing! Or has she? When she hits Fort Smith on her way back she’ll know by how Monty and Flick look at her. Healing, just perhaps, is in the eye of the beholder.
A note about changing a short story into a musical. Crawley got the idea for this show in 1993 after reading “The Ugliest Pilgrim” story by his friend Doris Betts. This story was published in 1973. After Crawley and Tesori agreed to collaborate, they met Betts to understand her take on the story. Then Tesori traveled across the south listening to the regional musical styles. This was Tesori’s first project as a composer for a full show. Today, she is the most prolific and honored female composer in Broadway’s history with such hits as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir. Her movie credits include The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning and Shrek the Third.
Violet, Music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics & book by Brian Crawley, Directed by Andrew Russell. Based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts. Runtime: 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission. ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave SW, West Seattle. Wed – Sat at 7:30 PM; Sun at 3 PM. Tickets www.artswest.org. Check website for special conversations and talk backs. Runs March 3 – April 3.