A little-known Off-Broadway musical from the 1990s, Violet has recently stepped into the sunlight thanks to a 2014 Broadway revival starring Sutton Foster, which is likely what brought it to the attention of new Australian production company Blue Saint. Following a highly successful run at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, the new (and very welcome) independent musical theatre circuit has meant Melbournites are now lucky enough to also get the opportunity to enjoy this charming piece of Americana.
Based on a short story set in 1964 (The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts), about a devout young Christian woman with a disfiguring facial scar, the play is centred on her bus journey from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma to seek healing from a televangelist. Being as its source material is lean, Violet is also light on incident, allowing Brian Crawley’s book to focus on character. On her journey Violet (Sam Dodemaide) meets a pair of soldiers: a black sergeant Grady ‘Flick’ Figgins (Barry Conrad) and a white paratrooper Monty Harrell (Steve Danielsen). The trio get to know each other over a game of poker at a Kingsport, Tennessee rest stop, allowing Violet to recall how her father taught her to play in the charming song “Luck of the Draw”.
As the trip continues, Violet confides in the boys why she’s travelling to Tulsa and her dreams of changing her appearance to match the starlets in the celebrity magazines via the song “All to Pieces”. When they reach Memphis, the men convince Violet to stay at the same boarding house they’re rooming at, spurring a change in their relationships and causing each of them to look at the other in a new light.
Jeanne Tesori’s score is full of charming bluegrass, gospel and country-influenced tunes, spiced with beautiful harmonies. Toe-tapping opening number, “Water in the Well” draws a thematic bow across the story and sets the tone for the entire play, and while the influences of Violet upon Tesori’s more recent work, Fun Home, are apparent, it lacks the immediate memorability of 2015’s Best Musical Tony Winner.
Channelling her best Sutton Foster, Dodemaide makes a delightfully self-possessed Violet. Full of tomboyish conviction with underlying vulnerability, Dodemaide’s performance is pitched perfectly as are her vocals, making it impossible not to warm to her character immediately. Likewise, both Conrad and Danielsen are in fine voice and offer excellent counterpoint to each other, with Conrad’s Flick being a generous and caring soul with a tenacious spirit, while Danielsen’s Monty is a good-looking charmer with a bigger heart than expected.
In flashback, we see how Violet came to be the person she is today via a number of haunting scenes of the teenage Violet (Luisa Scrofani) and her father (Damien Bermingham), particularly the affecting “Down the Mountain” number. Bermingham, a producer of the show, brings beautiful pathos to the suffering and struggling parent and turns in brilliant vocals throughout, hitting an emotional peak with “That’s What I Could Do”. Scrofani is a star of the future, offering deep emotional connection to character and ably matching her more experienced co-stars.
The ensemble of six all get their chance to shine through characterful smaller roles and standout solo vocal opportunities, and they uniformly deliver sterling performances. Deidre Rubenstein shows versatility as an older woman travelling to visit her son in Nashville who looks past Violet’s scars and a lady of the night desperate for business in Memphis (“Anyone Would Do”). Cherine Peck goes to town with a belting vocal in “Raise Me Up” as Lula the preacher’s lead gospel chorist.
Musical Director Martine Wengrow works blind behind the blacks but ably follows her cast while leading her band of five and tickling the ivories herself to create a glorious representation of the classic American styles in Tesori’s score.
The technical aspects of this production are also first class. Simon Greer’s conceptual set design invoking a bus, a diner, a boarding house and the open road all at once. A perfect example of artistic simplicity in design bringing everything that’s required without having to be overly elaborate. Ross Graham’s lighting design fills in the blanks on setting and location, providing atmosphere without distraction and admirably avoiding overt use of obvious purple hues. Sound Design by Kelvin Gedye of System Sound is perfectly balanced and crystal clear.
Director Mitchell Butel shows clear intention and brings out Violet’s themes of race, sex and religion with intelligence and sensitivity. Excellent use of space and clever focus on the emotional undercurrents of the libretto sway the balance towards the musical’s strength in score and its theme of not judging a book by its cover, while avoiding the potential for being too cloying with the slightly twee ending of Crawley’s script.
The Hayes theatre has done wonders for bringing more independent musical theatre to Sydney, and if it means that we continue to see more productions then go on to tour to Melbourne, then we’re all winners. Violet joins Sweet Charity and now Little Shop of Horrors on the list of brilliant new productions coming from our northern cousins that might make a few local producers realise they need to pull up their socks. This is the sort of show that makes you glad to be a lover of musical theatre, for there’s little here not to enjoy.
Violet is now playing at Chapel Off Chapel until March 20th.
For tickets: http://chapeloffchapel.com.au/melbourne-comedy-theatre-art/melbourne-events/violet-the-musical-3-20-march/