Jeanine Tesori has long been highly respected and celebrated on Broadway as a musical theatre composer, never more so than in 2015 as the writer of the score for the exceptional Tony-winning musical, Fun Home.
Unfortunately, Tesori’s name is nowhere near as well known in Australia, owing primarily to the fact that local audiences haven’t had the privilege of seeing much of her work performed on our shores.
This is what makes Blue Saint Productions’ Violet, currently playing at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, such a treat. From now until December 20, Sydney-siders can enjoy the rare chance to experience a work of this history-making modern day theatrical composer.
First staged off-Broadway in 1997, Violet takes place in North Carolina in 1964. The title character (played here by Samantha Dodemaide) is a young woman whose face was severely disfigured in an accident during her childhood. As the piece begins, Violet is waiting for a bus to take her to the city of Tulsa in Oklahoma. In Tulsa, she hopes to have her face healed by a televangelist, and for that healing to herald the start of a whole new life.
On her journey to Tulsa, Violet encounters two soldiers in Tennessee, Flick (Barry Conrad) and Monty (Steve Danielsen). Flick is an African-American sergeant and Monty a Caucasian corporal. Violet strikes up a friendship with the pair, who ultimately help her to realise that even with the profound physical scars she carries, she’s a beautiful woman who deserves the life she seeks.
That central theme is certainly nothing new for musical theatre, but it’s conveyed skilfully and tactfully care of Brian Crawley’s thoughtfully written lyrics and book, inspired by Doris Betts’ short story The Ugliest Pilgrim. And with Violet clocking in at 105 minutes, Crawley and Tesori have worked to ensure their heroine’s tale doesn’t linger on stage a second more than it should.
Musically, the songs vary somewhat in terms of their memorability, but there are a number of highlights. ‘Luck of the draw’, performed by Violet and the two soldiers over a poker game at the time of their first meeting, is a highly comical country number that ensures the work has its fair share of lighter moments from the outset. ‘Raise me up’, the much-anticipated choral number complete with roof-raising choir and insincere and opportunistic preacher, is truly toe tapping and is the source of some of the show’s best laughs. And ‘Bring me to light’, Violet’s finale, is enormously effective in punctuating the piece with a moving, memorable and meaningful conclusion.
Dodemaide is excellent in the title role. Without a hint of make-up to represent the dreadful scars with which her character is afflicted, she excels in her ability to ensure the audience sees Violet both as a somewhat tragic figure, deserving of their upmost sympathy, and a beautiful human being, deserving of what she wants. Dodemaide’s vocal performance is note perfect from the beginning, and her southern accent doesn’t waver for a second.
Conrad is also a stand out as Flick. A newcomer to the musical theatre scene, Conrad’s pop voice is the perfect vehicle for ensuring Flick’s moments land with the audience precisely as they should, particularly in ‘Let in sing’ – another of Violet’s musical highlights. His consistency in his vocals throughout matches Dodemaide. Conrad’s lack of experience belies the fact he’s a bona fide musical theatre performer.
Danielsen’s characterisation of Monty, the young and charming paratrooper, is also successful. His growth as a vocalist since the recent Wicked tour is evident, and complete with a convincing accent, he embodies his character consistently throughout. Importantly, Danielsen and Conrad work well together and, similarly, there’s good chemistry between he and Dodemaide.
Stellar support in this production is plentiful. Distinguished Australian leading lady, Genevieve Lemon, is a scene-stealer as hooker Misty, and as Mabel, an eccentric older woman Violet encounters on the bus. Damien Bermingham is a powerful presence whenever he takes to the stage here as Violet’s father, which occurs in moments when she reminisces about moments from her childhood (including the gruesome aftermath of the accident that led to her disfigurement).
Dash Kruck’s larger than life preening preacher is right on the money. His is exactly the kind of televangelist whose outrageously over-the-top pontificating could believably compel Violet to travel 1,000 miles on a bus for a blessing. And Luisa Scrofani’s spritely and genial characterisation of young Violet is the ideal counterpart to Dodemaide’s adult version.
Violet is a substantial achievement for director Mitchell Butel. He’s enlisted a superior cast to bring these characters to life and shaped a production that will ensure this rare outing of a Tesori work in Oz is a memorable evening for those who have the fortune to experience it.