Musical theatre is so often about spectacle, it’s always a pleasure to see a small musical that focuses on people and their troubles.
Based on a short story, The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, Violet is the story of the title character – a young woman scarred by a childhood accident. She is travelling across 1960s America, hoping to be healed. The show is a roadtrip through the politics and passions of a changing country; Violet’s scar is an emblem of her country’s and her own torment.
Early in her travels, Violet meets Monty and Flick – two young soldiers, ready to fight for their way-of-life. Vietnam is looming on their horizons. Violet plays cards with them, which she learned from her father. One of the highlights of the show is the flashbacks to Young Violet and the story of how she was raised.
Violet is convinced that a television preacher can heal her wounds and getting to Tulsa to see him is her ultimate goal. But on the road, through the use of country, gospel and blues, the show creates a fascinating world populated with a variety of characters from the rural South. There’s a preacher, a gospel singer, a music hall singer, a lady of the night and more. A colourful collection, who all get their moments to shine.
Written by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley in 1997, the show was produced on Broadway in 2014 with Sutton Foster in the title role. For such an intimate story, Violet wasn’t the best fit for a large Broadway stage; Chapel Off Chapel (or the Hayes Theatre in Sydney, where this Australia production was born) feels more fitting.
Director Mitchell Butel has delivered a production that embraces the fun of the show. His actors are giving it their all; this is a solid cast that doesn’t hold back from belting when they need to and toning it way down, when required. Damien Birmingham brings some very affecting subtlety to the role of Violet’s father. Barry Conrad’s beautiful voice enhances Flick’s passions. And Luisa Scrofani is astonishing as Young Violet.
While the songs are beautiful and the actors were mostly in fine voice, my only quibble is in how neatly the show itself wraps up. While I think Violet’s central story, the concern over her facial scarring, is poignant, the romantic subplot isn’t quite convincing. I think the actors do a fine job and the songs almost sell it, but the script itself doesn’t quite convince.
Violet is one of those musicals that quickly engages with clever lyrics and colourful characters, and then its real substance creeps in while you’re being thoroughly entertained.