I caught Actors Theatre of Indiana’s production of the musical “Violet” (running through Nov. 13), which I had previously seen in a college production and on Broadway.
— I did not see or even notice the original off-Broadway production of “Violet,” the musical by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, when it launched off-Broadway in 1997 for a not-quite-a-month run. But a convergence of two things brought it to my attention: The fact that this short run spawned an original cast recording and that I happened to remember the name of its star thanks to her knockout understudy performance I caught in the Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel.” Hmmmm…what’s this Lauren Ward musical? I’ll check it out in spite of the amateurish CD cover.
— That CD went into frequent rotation in my collection. In addition to the talents of Ward and Robert Westenberg (whose voice will be familiar to Sondheim fans via the “Into the Woods” OCR), it featured a score with a unique mix of gospel, country, bluegrass, traditional musical theater and a bit of the blues that put composer Jeanine Tesori on my map. In the time since, she’s become one of the strongest musical theater talents out there with “Caroline, or Change,” “Fun Home,” “Shrek The Musical” (Don’t laugh. That show has a much better score than most non-IP projects) and the new “Kimberly Akimbo.”
–“Violet” concerns a young woman, terribly scarred in an accident, and her journey to see a faith healer. Her bus trip quickly leads to encounters with a pair of soldiers and a different kind of healing than she expected.
— The musical is based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts. A 1981 film version won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short. You can watch that film, which starred Didi Conn, here. The visible scar in that film isn’t nearly as disfiguring as the one left to the viewers imagination in the stage version. Flick is barely a footnote and the ending is, well, urgh.
— Doris Betts also wrote a short story called “Beasts of the Southern Wild” which predates but has nothing to do with the film of the same name.
— Very few musicals allow the main character to be even remotely as painfully naïve as Violet, especially for this long, with the audience knowing a rude awakening is coming. Sure Elle Woods thinks Warner Huntington III is going to propose and Elder Price believes that the answer to problems in an African village can be found in an old book, but neither is as desperately in need as Violet. We in the audience know that this preacher can’t make miracles happen (I hope that most realize that any preacher that promises healing is a con artist). At the same time, few musicals allow a woman to be as in control of her sexuality as Violet is. In the role in this production, Sydney Howard manages to find her toughness, her ignorance, her smarts, her grace, her spunk and her pain. And, perhaps most importantly, she allows us to see Violet’s external and internal scars.
— Kudos to the onstage band, including violinist Kathy Schilling.
— Usually dream sequences stretch credibility and pull me out of a show. Richard Roberts directs one here that pulled me closer.
— The setting is simple but I’ll admit that it took me a while to notice the map on the floor.
— There is a lot riding on the small shoulders of Quincy Carmen as Young Vi, and she delivers. Only once did a feel like a key line was lost and that wasn’t her fault.
— While Tiffanie Bridges doesn’t have much to say in multiple parts, she brings life — and a glorious voice — to the table.
— And Eric Olson has moves.
— The production made me hopeful that future ATI schedules can include more intimate musicals such as this. Ticket selling is usually tough for lesser-known titles, but there are some damn good ones out there that play well in such close quarters. I’m thinking of “Once,” “A Man of No Importance,” “A Catered Affair,” and more. Not every show benefits from bigness.
— I’m glad ATI still offers a printed program — not just as a souvenir but also for the opportunity to learn things like the fact that actor Matt Branic career has included performances as Jesus, Joseph (of Dreamcoat fame), Noah, and Adam. I’m sure that’s all a testament to his talent.
— Final note: Don’t take Violet’s dad’s poker advice.