These days Jeanine Tesori is most widely known as the composer of the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home.” But she first made her mark in 1997 with “Violet,” a small, haunting, emotionally power-packed show that demonstrated her gift for incorporating gospel, folk, rock and country music, as well finely tuned Broadway-style banter songs, all in the service of impassioned storytelling.
‘VIOLET’ Highly recommended When: Through Jan. 13, 2018 Where: Griffin Theatre at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $42 Info: www.griffintheatre.com Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with intermission
“Violet,” with a superbly crafted libretto and lyrics by Brian Cawley (drawn from Doris Betts’ short story, ‘The Ugliest Pilgrim”), also suggested the sort of material Tesori would continue to explore in such musicals as “Caroline, or Change” and even “Shrek” — tales of outsiders and victims of prejudice in search of love, acceptance and respect.
Watching Griffin Theatre’s altogether brilliant production of “Violet,” the latest triumph of director Scott Weinstein, you might very well conclude the musical is Tesori’s finest work. It is that good. And it features a cast whose clarion voices and exceptional acting reveal its full beauty.
Set in 1964, the musical follows the hope-filled Greyhound bus journey made by Violet (played at age 25 by Nicole Laurenzi, and at age 13 by Maya Lou Hlava, with both actresses wholly transcendent). Traveling from the small mountain town of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where she has gown up, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Violet is on a mission — hellbent on meeting the famous televangelist preacher and faith healer she believes will restore her profoundly scarred face and, by extension, her happiness, and even her chance to become a movie star. The scar (which is not made visible), is the result of a freak accident that occurred 12 years earlier when the blade of an axe her father was using to chop wood flew off its handle and left her disfigured.
At a rest stop in Tennessee, Violet encounters two soldiers — the thoughtful, sensitive black sergeant, Flick (an intriguingly understated Stephen Allen), and the cocky young white corporal, Monty (the fiery Will Lidke) — both bound for Fort Smith, Arkansas, and perhaps Vietnam. Obviously they are both aware of her scar. And the racial undertones with Flick (she had never encountered a black person in Spruce Pine) are awkward at first. But already feeling a bit adventurous, Violet asks to join their poker game and enjoys a moment of triumph, for as it happens, she had been tutored by her father — something she recalls in the brilliantly limned song, “Luck of the Draw,” performed to perfection by Violet and her dad (the formidable Matt W. Miles).
The sexual competition among the men is constantly at play. And things get particularly awkward when the three arrive for an overnight stop in Memphis and head to Beale Street for a night on the town. Violet clearly finds something compelling about Flick who understands how surfaces (his black skin, her scar) can profoundly affect one’s life. (Allen’s rendering of the show’s anthem, “Let It Sing,” nails his philosophy). Monty (who does a knockout job with “Last Time I Came to Memphis”) has a more overt sexual energy, and things happen.
But Tulsa is Violet’s ultimate goal, even if she has been warned that faith healing is pure hokum, and she continues her travels alone. To be sure, the preacher’s choir makes a mighty sound as Lula (the roof-raising LaShera Zenise Moore) joins voices with Brianna Buckley, Sarah Hayes, Nick Druzbanski, Connor Baty and Kayer for a volcanic rendering of “Raise Me Up.” But not surprisingly, the preacher (a spot-on smarmy turn by Anthony Kayer), is a total huckster. And while Violet is momentarily convinced her face has been repaired, it is her sense of self that has emerged as she has experienced the wider world and had eye-opening encounters with many people. Whether real or imagined, Violet also engages in a searing confrontation with her father who sings the brilliant “That’s What I Could Do,” a blistering explanation of how he tried his best to help her in the post-accident years.
The final moment in “Violet” (not to be disclosed) is a stunner. Suffice it to say it is a heart-stopping comment on the intersection of love and death.