The Brian Crawley/Jeanine Tesori musical explores the eternal question: Is beauty really skin deep?
While many Broadway theatergoers are awaiting Roundabout Theatre Company's upcoming Broadway revival of the 1997 off-Broadway musical Violet, audiences at Washington D.C.'s Ford's Theatre are currently enjoying their own mounting.
With book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori, the musical based on Doris Betts' The Ugliest Pilgrim tells the tale of a relationship between a physically scarred young white woman and two soldiers — one white, one black — taking a journey on a Greyhound bus in the deep south of 1964. It's a touching story of love, hope, and healing.
Erin Driscoll plays Violet, the young woman full of both spunk and vulnerability who is on a quest for beauty and a miracle. Driscoll has a lovely voice and shines on ballads "Lay Down Your Head" and "Look at Me," and shares great chemistry with both Kevin McAllister's Flick and James Gardiner's Monty.
As Flick, the black soldier, Kevin McAllister delivers a star-turn of a performance, pulling out a complex array of emotions from his character. McAllister's powerful rendition of "Let It Sing" brings down the house in Act 1, and confirms that this former Helen Hayes nominee remains a force to be reckoned with. It's McAllister's Flick who becomes the rooting interest for the audience, more so than Violet, whose character feels as if she's missing an element that would allow for her to better connect with the audience.
As Monty, the white soldier, you're never quite sure if James Gardiner is playing sleazy or sweet. And his character is nowhere near as well rounded as Flick. A similar problem exists with Violet's dad, played by a gruff Bobby Smith. The part is vague in illustrating to the audience what type of dad he really is and what his role is in Violet's accident. Still, both actors are fun to watch.
Lauren Williams is adorable as the 13-year-old Violet, though her Southern twang doesn't quite match up to Driscoll's. Standout members of the ensemble include Kellee Knighten Hough, whose golden voice is on full display in a multitude of roles. Then there's Gregory Maheu, a real find as the evangelistic preacher — a mix of Hairspray's Corny Collins and Guys and Dolls' Sky Masterson — but the story gets a bit muddled when Violet finally does make her way to him.
Perhaps one of the more difficult tasks in this musical is left up to director Jeff Calhoun. When writing the musical, Crawley and Tesori decided not to represent Violet's physical scar, leaving it to the audience's imagination. You're not quite sure if the disfigurement is real or if there's something else wrong with the title character. Calhoun's solution to this simply sticks to the text, with Violet only talking about her scar (a questionable decision that results in confusion more than anything else). Calhoun, however, does work wonders crafting the action on the bus and never leaves a scene feeling stagnant. Thanks to an imaginative series of backdrops created by scenic designer Tobin Ost and projection designer Aaron Rhyne, the audience is able to seamlessly follow the story's transitions back and forth between past and present.
Though it does take a while for Violet to get moving, it starts to gain steam with the smile-inducing number "Luck of the Draw" in which side-by-side simultaneous poker games represent a 13-year-old Violet bonding with her father as the adult Violet begins connections with her new friends Flick and Monty.
Violet at its heart is a tale about scars — much more about those that lie within the souls of the characters than those that can be seen on the surface. Thanks to effervescent performances by Driscoll, McAllister, and company, you'll realize that beauty shines from the unlikeliest of places.