To celebrate their 25th anniversary, SpeakEasy presents a revised version of an early Jeanine Tesori favorite.
Musical theater is rife with titular leading ladies, from Mame to Matilda, that are the kind of bucket list, tour-de-force roles that leagues of actresses long to sink their teeth into. Violet, the spunky but tortured heroine of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's 1997 musical of the same name, is a role that requires an absolute powerhouse to pull off. Fortunately for SpeakEasy Stage, they've got Alison McCartan, who shines in this otherwise uneven musical.
Violet and SpeakEasy have crossed paths before. Over 15 years ago, directed then as it is now by Paul Daigneault, SpeakEasy staged the off-Broadway version of the show that premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 1997. In 2014, Violet was retooled for Broadway, in an acclaimed production starring Sutton Foster. In celebration of the company's 25th anniversary, it is this revised version of Violet that is once again being given a New England premiere. Although the newly revised Violet has been streamlined and reduced to one act, the show still feels long, and somewhat underdeveloped in parts.
Based on Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," Violet is a young woman who sets off on a journey by Greyhound from North Carolina to Oklahoma in hopes that a televangelist preacher (a terrifically versatile John F. King) that she saw on TV can miraculously rid her of a gruesome and disfiguring facial scar, which she received at the hand of her father (Michael Mendiola) during an accident with an ax blade. It is a scar we never see, but we feel it in Violet's painful internalization and in the recoils of those she meets when they "see" her disfigurement. Violet's journey begins after her father's death. Along the way she meets two soldiers and they all become fast friends: Monty (Nile Scott Hawver), a cocksure ladies' man, and his friend Flick (an excellent Dan Belnavis) who, as a black man in the 1960s, knows a thing or two about being judged for his appearance.
It is through Violet's relationships with Monty and Flick that she begins to consider that beauty really is more than skin deep. While her meeting with the preacher doesn't go quite as planned, Violet manages to, in a series of beautifully staged flashbacks and dream scenes between her father and her younger self (played by Audree Hedequist), make peace with her demons. Violet's eleven o'clock exorcism, as it were, allows her to take her brave first few steps toward living a life of self-acceptance. Her hopeful transformation also has much to do with Flick, who is perhaps the first man that's been able to see past her disfigurement.
The character of Violet is as richly drawn and intricately layered as any in American musical theater, and to see a young actress like McCartan score such a home run with her is a thrilling experience. There is also a hint of self-destruction in Violet that adds an extra shade of darkness to her circumstances and to McCartan's performance.
Much of Violet's poignancy is due in large part to Mendiola and Hedequist, as Violet's father and young Violet, who unfurl bits of Violet's childhood in several beautiful moments throughout the show. Dan Belnavis is charming and gentle as Flick, his "Let It Sing" being a major highlight of the show. The character of Monty is a bit problematic, and he his majorly shortchanged by some uneven writing. Still, Nile Scott Hawver makes the most of the role, even if his voice isn't quite up to the challenge. Kathy St. George makes herself indispensible, doubling as both the old lady and a hotel hooker that's seen better days. As the latter, she momentarily steals the show, hair a mess, hilariously clad in an unfortunate leopard number (designed by Charles Schoonmaker) as she wobbles her way through "Anyone Would Do."
On his second outing directing the show for SpeakEasy, Daigneault's passion for the material is evident: His staging of the show is seamless and thoughtful. For "Raise Me Up," a rousing gospel number that features the incredible Carolyn Saxon, Daigneault has wisely called on members of various local gospel choirs, which makes the number gloriously realistic and powerful. The set is stripped down to a simple set of glass bricks (designed by Eric Levenson) and a handful of chairs, which work just fine. However, Karen Perlow's lighting could, at times, stand to move beyond simply bathing the space in swaths of red or green.
For as enjoyable and as moving as Violet mostly is, the show still plays unevenly. The middle loses steam, and as tensions (both sexual and otherwise), mount between Violet, Monty, and Flick, their conflict is underwritten and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Also underdeveloped, and thereby incredulous as the romantic storyline in this unconventional show is, it ends up wrapped in a box with a nice neat bow.
Violet was composer Jeanine Tesori's first to be professionally produced. Her score here is an appealing mix of folk, gospel, bluegrass, and pop, but too often the numbers feel anticlimactic. Brian Crawley has done a splendid job adapting Bett's short story, but the impact of the show, as a whole, is tempered by a weak middle and a meandering conclusion. But despite Violet's problems, it is fitting that SpeakEasy has chosen to commemorate its anniversary with a musical about a journey.