Forty years and 289 productions later, The San Diego Repertory Theatre is staging the very new (2014) ‘modern fairy tale musical’, ‘Violet’ as its season opener. The story is taken from Doris Betts’ ‘The Ugliest Pilgrim’.
With book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori, San Diego audiences are being treated to a just off the press inspiring new musical that’s making its west coast premiere through Sept. 13th on the Lyceum Stage.
Tesori’s past musical theatre accomplishments include ‘Caroline or Change’, ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’, that made its pre Broadway tryout in 2000 at the La Jolla Playhouse that jettisoned Sutton Foster (the star of Violet on Broadway) to stardom, and ‘Shrek The Musical’. Most recently Tesori was the winner of the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musial (‘Violet’).
Violet, (Hannah Corrigan) who hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, grew up all too fast when, at the age of thirteen she was accidentally struck in the face with an ax gone awry while her father (Jason Maddy) chopping wood in their barn. Her face was permanently disfigured.
Now wiser but more cynical (‘This town is a superstitious place.’) from her classmates and townsfolk turning away from her in horror, she’s on a ‘pilgrimage ‘to see this well known televangelist preacher (Jason Heil) in Tulsa, the one that heals?’ ‘And I’m coming home pretty. With this face I think that counts as healing.’
As Violet’s story unfolds beginning with a younger Violet (Katelyn Katz) setting the stage for her later trip to healing, director Sam Woodhouse’s staging is as promising and poignant as we’ve come to expect from others celebrated over the years.
With the tumultuous sixties as a backdrop, Bible, suitcase and deceased Mom’s diary in hand, Violet’s Greyhound bus trip will open a new world for her, one that bring her face to face with the true meaning of beauty.
This important chapter in Violet’s life begins with the encounters she makes on her bus trip. Monty (Jacob Cartrider) and Flick (Rhett George) are two young GI’s headed off to battle and serve in the same unit. Both befriend her. She shows them a thing or two about poker. ‘Luck of the Draw’.
Flick, who is African American, knows about the petrified looks of horror and is anything but critical of her looks. Monty, who will later become a Green Beret, is also smitten. They just show their affection in different ways.
For the most part, though the rest of the characters are what we might expect out of a Grayhound Bus Terminal in the 60’s. They include Melinda Gilb, as Old Lady and others. She is like a chameleon; changing characters (how about hotel hooker?) and outfits so often and so on target that at times she goes mostly unrecognized but for her powerful voice.
There are a few church going gals, who later on sing up a Gospel storm, some hookers and some dealers. Some still not convinced of the Civil Rights Bill show their righteous indignation when both races share a seat. That bit of show business puts the time squarely in the sixties south.
The music, country, blues, gospel and honky-tonk rock all come together in a story that’s told through its music. Takina Baptiste and Anise Ritchie (‘Hunchback’) will knock your socks off with ‘Raise Me Up” and ‘A healing Touch’.
There is also a gospel chorus made up of the 11- member cast that brings the house down (‘Let It Sing’). A seven- piece band headed by Korrie Paliotto above the stage accompanies, but all too often the sound (Kevin Anthenill) is distorted leaving reviewer hard pressed to understand the lyrics.
The talent pool runs deep in this production starting with both young and grown up Violet. Katelyn Katz never took a back seat to anyone on stage. Her theatrical credits include Scout in ‘To kill A Mockingbird’ at New Village Arts a few years ago, and a stint as Phyllis Who in the Globe’s ‘Grinch’. At thirteen she has the poise and voice to become whatever she chooses.
Hannah Corrigan plays the more mature Violet with an understated yet determined grace that puts you in her shoes. Whether by playwright’s notes or director’s choice, there is no visible scar showing on Violets face. Needless, it really doesn’t matter. She know it’s there.
Jason Maddy excels as the tormented Dad whose one innocent act will haunt both father and daughter for the rest of their lives. Jason Heil’s larger than life performance as the high rolling evangelist is as overpowering as it humbling.
Both Rhett George and Jacob Caltrider are true to form as the pair of soldiers most influential in Violet’s life. George’s Flick, however will prove to be more of a compassionate friend and fellow traveler than Monty.
Tesori’s multi ethnic music brings a high voltage source of energy from everyone in the ensemble, Javier Velasco’s choreography go hand in hand with the lively score and Guillo Perrone’s set on the Lyceum’s wide stage proves versatile changing from barn to bus terminal to motel room to TV station.
Lighting designer Trevor Norton gives us the contrasting hues of then and now. Nothing points to the 60’s as a Jenne Reith costume. Every detail is noted.
I would like to say that Violet is a coming of age story. It’s far from that. It is however a story of faith in ones self and in redefining beauty. Beauty, they say in in the eye of the beholder. For Violet, beauty is what’s inside.
It took her journey from North Carolina, through to Johnson City, Nashville, Knoxville and on to Tulsa Oklahoma for her to realize that when the preacher finally looked at her, his words brought the message home: I’m sorry, there is nothing really wrong with you’…‘Sister, your scar is already healed through, right? It’s not going anywhere. You need to make your peace with that’.
‘Violet is definitely worth a try.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Sept. 13th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Musical Story
Where: 79 Horton Plaza San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $36.00
Venue: Lyceum Stage