nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 25, 2007
One of the things I admire most about Gallery Players is their commitment to bringing contemporary musicals back to the New York stage for a second viewing. Sometimes, they choose shows that were only seen in bloated, overproduced Broadway mountings (their terrific The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Full Monty fit into this category); while other times they focus on a show that got away too soon, something that a lot of us simply didn't get a chance to see, positive buzz notwithstanding.
Violet, the current offering on Gallery Players' Park Slope stage, is certainly in that latter category. It played a 36 performance run at Playwrights Horizons back in 1997; apparently a strongly negative notice in the Times aborted any possibility of a transfer off- or on-Broadway. Yet it's a lovely, if flawed show, and I'm grateful to have had a chance to see it at long last; if you didn't catch it during its brief run a decade ago (and only about 5,000 people did), then take advantage of this opportunity.
The piece, which has book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori, is set in the American South in 1964. That was the year when the Civil Rights movement began to score its first major successes, and the energy and aura of the period is the backdrop—though not the main subject—of this musical. The Violet of the title is a woman in her mid-20s who is journeying from her home in the remote mountain town of Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is literally intending to find a miracle. Years before, Violet's father accidentally hit her in the face with an axe; she has decided—and earnestly and devoutly believes—that a TV preacher will be able to heal her and make her beautiful if she goes to his prayer meeting in Tulsa.
The show takes place almost entirely on buses between North Carolina and Oklahoma, where Violet befriends two soldiers. One of them, Monty, is good-looking and a little flighty; their initially bantering relationship turns more serious as they get to know each other better. The other, Flick, is a black man who eventually falls in love with her. Is their relationship impossible in 1964?
Other characters drift through the story of these three, including a nosy but kindly old woman, a black boardinghouse manager in Memphis who is an old friend of Flick's, and a succession of bus drivers, all different but all the same. The arc of the show traces the shifting relations among Violet, Flick, and Monty, as well as each characters' growing/changing self-awareness. It's powerful and affecting, especially Violet's transformation, which is depicted in a long show-stopping number called "Look at Me" that brings Act II to a thrilling climax.
The material is difficult, musically and emotionally, and the ensemble isn't always fully up to harnessing its potential. Rhyn McLemore, Collin Howard, and Shad Olsen work hard as Violet, Flick, and Monty, but unfortunately none of the three really develops a completely convincing characterization. In supporting roles, though, Sarah Orr (as the busybody old lady and others) and Brad Thomason (as Violet's father) are particularly praiseworthy. Jeffrey Campos leads a four-member orchestra through a pleasing account of the complex score. M.R. Goodley's staging is straightforward and deeply-felt, if perhaps lacking some of the nuance and sophistication that the piece needs.
So this is not a perfect rendition of Violet, but then neither is the play perfect: it's probably 45 minutes too long, padded with scenes and songs that constantly pull us away from the powerful central ideas of the story. For example, there's a long song in Act I called "Luck of the Draw" that tells us nothing other than that Violet is a skillful poker player; and in the second act there's an almost-obligatory gospel number called "Raise Me Up" that feels gratuitous. Both should have been cut, along with a lot of other extraneous material that detracts from the compelling journey toward self-understanding that Violet undergoes in the show.
All that said, it's still a pleasure to get to see this piece so forthrightly and lovingly staged. Gallery Players takes a risk putting a lesser-known musical like this on the boards, and they deserve to be rewarded for it. Fans of musical theatre especially won't want to miss this rare revival of Violet.