Violet is a musical that’s not big and brassy and flashy. Based on a short story, its concerns, like that form’s, are more with character and local color than with, say, life and death events such as storming the barricades or catching the last helicopter out of Saigon. However, if a musical with a twang, country roots, and a bit of nostalgia appeals to you, you have a treat in store at Ford’s Theatre, where Violet opened last week in a production that makes the most of the play’s assets.
The title character is a young woman from the hills of North Carolina. An accident involving an ax-head has left her badly disfigured. She sets out on a bus trip to Tulsa, the city that is home to a televangelist faith healer who, Violet is convinced, will restore her to a normal appearance. During the ride, she meets a pair of soldiers heading to Fort Smith, Arkansas. One (Monty) is white, one (Flick) is black. In the South of 1964, she finds a kinship with Flick, who, like her, is immediately judged by strangers because of his appearance. Flashbacks detail the accident and Violet’s relationship with her father.
Violet is an early work by the composer Jeanine Tesori, whose best-known later works range from big-name movie adaptations (of Shreck and Thoroughly Modern Millie) to more adventurous terrain (Caroline, or Change, her collaboration with Tony Kushner, which is also set in the civil rights era South). Last year, she curated an off-shoot to the acclaimed “Encores!” series in New York, which presents concert versions of less-well-remembered musicals; its breakout hit is the still-running Chicago revival. Tesori’s “Encores! Off-Center” series focused on three Off-Broadway musicals. She included her own Violet, and it proved so successful that a full production opens next month on Broadway starring Sutton Foster.
Ford’s production must have already been in the pipeline. Fortunately, the New York producers didn’t quash Ford’s plans, which went ahead, giving DC audiences a preview of the show before the revival at New York’s Roundabout Theatre opens.
The modest scope of the piece is appealing. Although the bus trip device has echoes of The Trip to Bountiful, it’s evocative. For anyone who’s traveled a lot on Greyhound, it’s a unique way to experience fly-over country, and interactions with fellow travelers on the buses and in stations are just different than they are on Amtrak or airplanes.
The short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts is from her collection Beasts of the Southern Wild (which is not connected to the wonderful recent film of the same name). Tesori’s collaborator in adapting the story is Brian Crawley, who wrote the book and lyrics. Perhaps because Crawley used great stuff from the story (I haven’t read it), there is more texture and grace to the dialogue than often occurs in the book of a musical. When Violet tells the soldiers of writing in what is functionally a diary, she tells how her writing keeps a connection with her dead father, how it helps “slow down how fast I was forgetting him.” This sort of lyrical detail is the strongest aspect of the writing, as the bluegrass, gospel, and R&B inflections are the strongest aspect of Tesori’s score.
Director Jeff Calhoun is an Associate Artist at Ford’s, who also has an impressive list of Broadway credits. (Currently running on the Great White Way is his hit Newsies). He has cast the production with capable actors whose voices are tremendous, and he has elicited strong portrayals of characters large and small from them.
Erin Driscoll plays the title role with nuance and a rich voice. It was a bit disorienting, though, when her appearance was described as off-putting; Driscoll is lovely and, if there was a scar, I didn’t read it from Row J where I was sitting, though, admittedly, I’m overdue for a new glasses prescription. That quibble aside, Driscoll, on stage nearly throughout, carries the show masterfully.
On the other hand, James Gardiner is a nice-looking guy, but it seemed as if the dialogue was implying a more classically handsome character of movie-star strikingness, which we are supposed to associate with Violet’s Gene Tierney fantasies — that was slightly disorienting as well. Otherwise, Gardiner is pitch perfect as Monty, and, without his white-washing the part, we end up very much liking a character who has aspects that could be off-putting.
Kevin McAllister (Flick) seemed a bit buttoned-up at the top of the show, but by Act Two he had relaxed into a strong performance. The turning point seemed to be his late Act One number, “Let It Sing,” which stopped the show, and after which there seemed more warmth and easiness to his work. Impressively, he found his own note to begin the song. That strikes me as the hardest thing for an actor to do in a musical, and I suppose it requires perfect pitch, or close to it.
The other ten actors fill out several roles each, some substantial, some fleeting. All are aided by Costumer Designer Wade Laboissonniere and Wig and Make-Up Designer Anne Nesmith in distinguishing parts in a way that makes the cast seem larger than it is. Of particular note are Amy McWilliams as two impressively distinct fellow travelers, Gregory Maheu as the unctuous televangelist, whose camera-ready smiling gives way subtly to backstage annoyance but who ends up being more empathic than we expect, and Kellee Knighten Hough, who follows up her tartly suspicious landlady by leading with rousing effect the gospel number that the televangelist’s choir is rehearsing.
Bobby Smith is terrific as the father. His voice is powerful, and his performance lends a lovely poignancy to what is arguably the key relationship in the story. The climax of that relationship tiptoes to the edge of melodrama, but he and Driscoll and Calhoun pull it back and don’t lose us.
I think the need for a dramatic climax and an uplifting finish is where the source material doesn’t help the musical. Short stories can pack a punch with a more quietly calibrated pay-off than a musical, and so the wind-up here feels somewhat less satisfying than the journey to it. It also struck me as a bit odd that the racial dynamic seemed muted at the end of the night. While earlier the interracial friendship was viewed with hostility or fear by characters of both races, by the end it seemed to be less central, not nearly the impediment to a resolution of the dynamics between the three travelers that we had been set up for. And once Tesori’s score moves from the idioms that had so delightfully infused it earlier, the final song (“Bring Me To the Light”) felt to me as if it could swap into If/Then or another contemporary score, it seemed so much more generic than what had preceded it.
Music Director Jay Crowder should receive lots of credit for the strong vocal work of the cast. He leads an eight-piece band that sounds full and robust, and which navigates all of the styles of the score seamlessly.
I have to rave about the set (Tobin Ost), lights (Michael Gilliam), and projections (Aaron Rhyne). The design is gorgeous, while efficiently evoking time and place. We enter before the show and see projected what looks like a post card from the era, with a kind of early-polaroid color scheme. And are those age cracks? When back-lit during the show, we see through the scrim (which has transformed into scenes of Violet’s mountain home) that there’s a high platform, which gives a cool flashback aspect to some of the scenes with Young Vi (Lauren Williams) and her father. Later, a lonely woman is seen dimly at her window singing wistfully through what is now the projection of a dark, uninviting Memphis street populated by loan shops.
Throughout the evening, the projection changes to maps as we follow the trip. (Look, you can see Hot Springs right under Little Rock!) Calhoun and his design team have created a wonderfully savvy design, handsome without being ostentatious, one of the most organic and inconspicuous uses of an upper level behind a scrim that I have ever seen. It’s true that the bus is a bit wider than the Greyhounds I have ridden on (and how spacious is that onboard toilet!) and I might have preferred if the lower-level boxes had not been used for exits, but the former is willing suspension and the latter is a quibble. Of course, the fact of Ford’s boxes being right up there on stage means that they become a de facto part of the set. And of course the flag-draped box where Lincoln was shot, with his picture under it, adds a unique poignancy to a story taking place in the South and concerning race.
Closes February 23, 2014
511 Tenth Street, N.W.
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $62
Tuesdays thru Sundays
On a personal note, I want to say that I was filling in here for someone who was suddenly indisposed. As a rule, I don’t review local productions out of a desire to avoid judging the work of people I know. Given the circumstances, however, I feel that I should say that I am slightly acquainted with, and am Facebook friends with, a few of the actors. Of those I mentioned in the review, I have had pleasant conversations with McWilliams maybe half a dozen times and have never met Smith, though we are FB friends. (Don’t judge.) I am FB friends with Stephen F. Schmidt, who is in the cast, Stephen Gregory Smith, who is one of the swings, I have worked previously with Assistant Stage Manager Kate Kilbane, and have served on a couple of theatreWashington panels with Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault.
On a slightly less, but still somewhat, personal note, one of the other Off-Broadway musicals in Tesori’s “Encores! Off-Center” series was I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, which I saw at Ford’s during its national tour (around 1980). The first show I ever saw at Ford’s was the years-long run of Godspell (around 1970). I recall this in order to point out that Violet falls into a tradition at Ford’s of doing contemporary musicals, and I’m very glad that Ford’s is, with Violet, carrying on that tradition.
Violet . based on The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts . music by Jeanine Tesori . lyrics and book by Brian Crawley . music direction by Jay Crowder . directed by Jeff Calhoun . Featuring Erin Driscoll, James Gardiner, Kevin McAllister, Madeline Botteri, Troy Hopper, Kellee Knighten Hough, Gregory Maheu, Katie McManus, Amy McWilliams, Nova Y. Payton, Stephen F. Schmidt, Chris Sizemore, Bobby Smith, Stephen Gregory Smith and Lauren Williams. Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.