The year: 1964.
The place: the Southern U.S. prior to the Civil Rights Act taking hold.
The premise: A 25-year old woman, Violet Karl, leaves her home in rural Spruce Pine, North Carolina, on a Greyhound bus trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she hopes that a televangelist will heal her facial scar received years earlier when an axe blade flew off its handle while her father was chopping wood. On one hand, Violet’s journey is the quintessential futile quest. Metaphorically, it is a journey leading her from hope to the anguish of disappointment to the final realization that beauty comes from the value of character, not appearance.
The musical Violet (music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Brian Crawley), the opening production of the Clarence Brown Theatre’s 2016-17 season, asks a lot from its audience’s imagination. This production of the musical—as other productions have done—avoids the burden of actually showing the disfigurement or an attention-getting hideous scar, admittedly a valid use of theatrical license. Oddly, though, we are asked to imagine a young woman who is supposedly living through pain, sadness, trauma, and rejection, yet our Violet seems visibly determined, plucky, and quick-witted, even resilient. We are asked to feel sentimentality for a different time, place, and cast of characters, yet we only view those things simplistically as through the frosted window of a speeding bus. And, we are asked to surrender to Violet’s addictive, yet unrefined and arguably derivative, score—a toe-tapping mix of Appalachian roots music, country, gospel, and Memphis rhythm and blues, that lives in the hope that we’ll be moved by its attractiveness and drawn to an inspirational conclusion without asking why or how we actually got there.
Thankfully, though, an absolutely sensational collection of individual vocal and dramatic performances from a uniformly impressive CBT cast saved this Violet and more than compensated for the flaws that exist in the vehicle itself. Appearing as Violet is Charlotte Munson, a naturally likable singer-actress whose voice has power and a lyrical appeal defined by warmth, depth, and gorgeous smoothness. Munson, seen last season as the vastly different Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, dealt with the role’s inherent inconsistencies with an admirable professionalism.
As the younger Violet, seen in flashbacks, Presley Keith demonstrated a substantial vocal talent that we’ll undoubtedly be hearing more of in the future. Also in the flashbacks, CBT regular David Kortemeier as Violet’s father brought warmth and understanding—and some very telling psychological explanations—to the relationship.
As the bus journey continued, Violet is brought together with two army soldiers on their way to Fort Smith, Arkansas—Monty (Christopher Ramirez) and Flick (Jelani Alladin)—who are attracted to her in spite of her physical affliction. Violet’s depth of character overwhelms the usually brash, but shallow Monty. Yet it is with Flick that Violet has the most in common. Both Monty and Flick have substantial vocal moments; Flick’s is a marvelous gospel derived number, “Let It Sing.”
Director Bill Jenkins has filled the remainder of the cast with solid singer-actors taking multiple roles: bus drivers and passengers, a Memphis hooker, music hall denizens, and the infamous preacher being sought out by Violet. Johnna Allen was simply marvelous, vocally and comically, as an old lady on the bus and as an aging hooker. Micah-Shane Brewer constructed an appropriately slimy televangelist and a spectacularly nondescript Greyhound bus driver. Kudos for seamless theatricality in other multiple roles go to Tracey Copeland Halter, Robert Parker Jenkins, and Benjamin Pratt. Yolanda Treece was sensational as the Landlady and as singer Lula Buffington and her inspirational number “Raise Me Up.”
Music director Terry Silver-Alford and his nine-member ensemble were assembled on a platform at the rear of the stage, part of a comfortable set of aged boards and off-angle beams designed by Christopher Pickart and lit by Tannis Kapell.
One interesting question arises. If Violet had been written today, instead of for its original Off-Broadway run in the 90s, would it have treated its Civil Rights era and the issue of racism the same? My guess is NO. Violet looks at race relations with no more than a wink and a nod to history, and with only an oblique mention in the relationship of Violet and Flick. In 2016, the disfiguring scar of racism that we blindly thought had healed, is still there for all to plainly see. While Violet made her discovery, our journey of healing is still on the bus.
Clarence Brown Theatre production of Violet continues through September 18.
No performances on September 12 and 17. 2:00 p.m. Matinees on September 11 and 18. All other performances at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: clarencebrowntheatre.com or 865-974-5161