By Beki Pineda
Photo Credit: Town Hall Arts Center
VIOLET. Music by Jeanine Tesori; lyrics and book by Brian Crawley; directed by Nick Sugar. Produced by Town Hall Arts Center (2450 West Main St., Littleton) through Feb. 7. Tickets available at 303-794-2787 or http://www.townhallartscenter.org.
A sign on the wall of the set of VIOLET promises “A Performance Second to None” from a gasoline product. But it could also refer to the performance taking place on stage. This production is blessed with excellent ensemble work, telling a powerful story of insight and redemption.
Ellen Kaye plays the title role in a tour-de-force performance (Sutton Foster played the role on Broadway and could not possibly have been better). Violet has a scar across her face, the result of an accident involving her father (Scott McLean). She has learned of a televangelist who makes the blind see and the lame walk. Determined to reach him for her personal healing, she has boarded a bus in North Carolina bound for Tulsa, Okla. Her interaction with the other passengers on the bus, particularly two young soldiers, forms the story and determines her path to acceptance.
Burdened with self-pity, Violet has been hardened by years of bullying as she grew up, and shocked stares in her adult life. Kaye gives a performance steeped in suppressed vulnerability disguised by an outward arrogance and disregard. Her nuanced portrayal depicts a woman in some ways mature beyond her years and yet, in other ways, still reflecting a young girl’s delusions about the simplicity of life. If she could only have “Gene Tierney’s eyes and anybody’s cheekbones,” her life would be perfect. Her personal mantra: “Next week when I’m pretty.”
The two soldiers who interact with Violet in a profound way are portrayed by Charles Lederer as Monte and Randy Chalmers as Flick, both bound for Fort Smith. Monte is childlike, confident in his charm and sexuality, and yet touched and challenged by Violet’s stand-offish attitude. Flick looks deeper and sees beyond her scar to her true inner beauty and need.
The ensemble performance by the entire cast has the slow, steady pace of a leisurely bus journey through the South. The bus ride itself is brilliantly choreographed by a series of unified movements of all the passengers as they jointly turn a corner or go over a bump. The music and action heat up during an overnight stay in Memphis and a visit to a honky-tonk. The roof really gets raised when Violet arrives in Tulsa and makes her way to the TV studio where the Preacher’s Gospel Chorus is rehearsing “Raise Me Up,” featuring a solo turn by the always marvelous Anna High.
The script is written so that individual members of the ensemble get their own moments. A fairly remarkable fast change converts Margie Lamb from an old lady on the bus giving Violet advice to a tired and jaded singer in the honky-tonk bar (“Anyone Will Do”). Rebecca Hyde plays the rebellious young Violet. While it was difficult at times to make out her lyrics, her anger and disappointment were clear. Zach Stailey, as the preacher, turns on the sincerity when the TV cameras are rolling and switches on the callous businessman too important to be bothered when the cameras are off. Krisangela Washington rocks out as the music-hall singer.
Of special note is the subtle and heartbreaking performance of Scott McLean as the father who so profoundly changed his daughter’s life. His solo in Act II—”That’s What I Could Do”—echoes every father’s lament that he could not make the world perfect for his child. If you are not moved by this man’s dilemma, your heart has turned to stone.
The versatile set by designer Tina Anderson provides the backdrop for the various bus stations and locations along Violet’s journey, and a platform for easy movement between scenes. Becky Toma’s set dressing of advertising signs from the ’60s lends authenticity to the universal bus stop. As always, the presence of Donna Debreceni and her musicians providing live accompaniment to the evening raises the performance bar.
This “serious” musical still delights with wit and charm. Director Nick Sugar has plumbed the depths of the script and created a well-honed ensemble telling a story worth hearing.
Wow factor: 9