Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawly
Directed by Dyan McBride.
Bay Area Musicals,
February 16 - March 17, 2019
Reviewed by Kedar K. Adour, MD
The major bromide that envelopes Violet the Musical is “beauty is only skin deep” and “true beauty is internal.” The present incarnation of this play has been pared down to one long act from its original 1997 version by musical genius Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Brian Crawly. The journey taken by the protagonists Violet involves a 1964 Greyhound bus trip from Blue Ridge Mountains to Tulsa, Oklahoma Major stops in Memphis and Nashville allow Tesori to use all her talents creating Country, R&B, Blues and Gospel music.
It is based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts. The Violet of the title is motherless and has had her face inadvertently scarred when she was young by an axe blade separated from its handle when her father was chopping wood. The audience never sees a scar and we are aware of it by the reactions of those around her. The storyline is non-linear with both individual and intertwined flashbacks filling in the gaps of Violet’s past life buttressing her reasons for seeking out a TV evangelist who will make her “beautiful.” Mature Violet is played by Juliana Lustenader and young violet by Miranda Long.
On the bus trip Violet meets a variety of “locals” with a mixture of personalities giving the setting a “down home” feel. The crucial adage of beauty being skin deep gets a boost when Vi meets Flick (Jon-David Randle) a black soldier traveling with white companion Monty (Jack O'Reilly) who takes a shine to Violet. Flick is deeply aware of how he is judged by his skin color. Jon-David Randle brings the house down with his powerful solo “Let It Sing” and whenever he takes or shares center stage. However, although the music and lyrics are very serviceable they did not leave a lasting impression.
There are some memorable highlights that are overly amplified but a pleasure to hear adding humor to the inevitable ending that you know is coming. The stop in Memphis allows Tsori to let it all hang out with a Memphis Blues number “Anyone Would Do” belted out by a trio led by Tanika Baptise. “Raise Me Up” with Clay Davis as the preacher with a choir backup had a few devotees in the audience standing up saying “Save Me Jesus.”
Juliana Lustenader earns accolades for her beautiful soprano voice and professional stage presence. Miranda Long as Young Violet holds her own surrounded by the engaging Lustenader and the powerful Jon-David Randle. If Clay David decides to give up legitimate theater he could step into the role of a true evangelist. The ensemble and supporting cast give serviceable performances but are hampered by the strange staging that involves upstage wooden slates with gaps between them allowing sightlines to back stage. Director Dyan McBride is hampered by the confines of the stage but uses the small revolving center stage to advantage.
Even though the musical numbers display Tosori and Crawly’s talents the total effect of the evening was diluted by a “tacked-on” ending. Running time is about two hours without an intermission.
CAST: Juliana Lustenader as Violet; Jon-David Randle as Flick; Jack O'Reilly as Monty; Miranda Long as Young Vi; Eric Neiman as Father; Shay Oglesby-Smith as Old Lady/Hooker; Clay David as Preacher; Tucker Gold as Virgil/Billy Dean; Andrea Dennison-Laufer as Music Hall Singer; Kim Larsen as Leroy/Radio Singer; Tanika Baptiste as Lula/Almeta; April Deutschle Ensemble; Jourdán Olivier-Verdé Ensemble; Elizabeth Jones Ensemble; Danielle Philapil Ensemble.
CREATIVE TEAM: Director Dyan McBride; Movement by Matthew McCoy; Musical Direction by Jon Gallo; Scenic Design by Mathew McCoy; Costumes by Brooke Jennings; Lighting by Eric Johnson;Sound design by Anton Hedman; Stage Manager Genevieve Pabon.