Musicals are journeys, for us as the audience as much as the characters and actors onstage. We rarely finish a performance in the same place from where we began. And that is part of the magic of theatre that I find so inspiring. This month, SpeakEasy Stage Company brings its bright new revival of Violet, a musical about a young woman badly scarred and dreaming of being healing by a far-away evangelical preacher. Under the detailed direction of Paul Daigneault, this musical becomes a beautiful journey towards faith, understanding, empathy, and acceptance. The beauty is in the smart and inspired performances of Alison McCartan and Audree Hedequist who share the remarkable role of Violet and Young Violet and show us that being brought to light is as possible as finding the strength and love inside us all.
Jeanine Tesori (now best known for the new musical Fun Home) wrote the music for this 1997 one-act musical as her first attempt at musical theatre, and what beginner’s luck (and skill!). Based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, Tesori and librettist Brian Crawley tell the story of a young disfigured woman, Violet Karl (played with astonishing sincerity and depth by Alison McCartan—and Young Violet, played by the promising rising star Audree Hedequist) who journeys by bus from North Carolina to Texas, searching for a savior to cure her disfigurement. Along the way, she meets a host of characters on the Greyhound bus, and at local pit-stops and motels. The journey is punctuated by Violet’s flashbacks, which inform the audience of her tragic accident, her relationship with her father, and her upbringing in a Southern small town. The juxtaposition of these stories, one told in the past and the other in the present, is a conventional model of exploring exposition and character, but Daigneault and his cast execute it with pitch-perfect clarity, helped in large part to the syndication of both McCartan and Hedequist in mannerisms, delivery, and sound. These transitions are also assisted by the strong production team, notably Lighting Designer Karen Perlow’s effective lighting design.
The first moment that we know that we are in for a special ride is when the company begins singing “On My Way,” a soulful and gospel song of journeying towards hope and change. McCartan leads the cast with her warm belty voice, incorporating her excellent command of the North Carolina accent in both song and dialogue. Music Director Matthew Stern guides the six-piece band and the singers to excellent effect, especially in the ensemble numbers, such as “Raise Me Up,” “M&Ms” and the inspiring “Bring Me To Light.” However, Stern and Daigneault’s collaboration in songs such as “Luck of the Draw” and “All to Pieces” is where the production really hits its stride. Their abilities to coordinate action and sound make the scenes and songs blend seamlessly and make the production rise above the rest in terms of production quality and storytelling.
And where would be without the story? Violet is a tough cookie; she is a rare breed in musical theatre of being at the center of the action, but with few redeeming qualities. As the audience, we are forced to admire her determination and grit, while rationalizing her bitterness and selfishness. McCartan carries the day by displaying the breadth of Violet’s personality, an unsympathetic portrayal of a person, with whom, over the course of the musical, we fall in love. And we’re not the only ones. Dan Belnavis’ Flick and Nile Scott Hawver’s Monty, a black sergeant and a white corporal, respectively, also fall in love with the young heroine. Both men are also deeply flawed, the first beaten down by prejudice in the deep South and his lack of self-esteem, the latter suffering from boastful pride and good looks, preventing him from meaningfully connecting with anyone. And these scars that we carry with us are the focus on the musical, the unseen pain that dictate our actions and reactions for ourselves and to others. We warm up to Belnavis, especially during his “Let It Sing” when he almost brings down the house with his powerful vocals. He lets it shine, and we are his for the rest of the musical. We have a harder time identifying with Hawver’s Monty. Hawver is aloof and guarded as the attractive corporal, attracting Violet with his smooth confidence, but he casts a shadow wherever he goes; we can almost see our best gal friend heading in the wrong direction, and we want to stop her before she wakes up the next morning.
But this is all part of the journey. The musical is a 100-minute ride one-act musical with twenty-four musical numbers. Under a less capable director and music director (and composer), Violet could feel more like a musical revue than a musical play, but the strong actors and production team keep the story moving within each song and develop character with each note and inflection. You need to be ready to take a predictable journey; there are few surprises in this musical. However, the joy is in these actors’ sharp and careful portrayals of these characters, from John F. King’s over-the-top televangelist preacher to hoot-worthy Kathy St. George as the Hotel Hooker and Old Lady, from Carolyn Saxton’s righteous Landlady (a wonderful return for this talented singer and actress) to the conflicted Michael Mendiola as Father. Each ensemble member fills the story with his or her own journey, creating a world that fills the stage and our hearts. The smart addition of local gospel choirs is a gorgeous touch by the sophisticated Daigneault, and Stern coaches them to skillful success as Saxton’s Lula Buffington leads them in voice and prayer in “Raise Me Up.”
The production feels electric, palpable, and note-worthy, even a week later. The songs touch me, the performances move me, and the story speaks as if calling me to make my own journey towards finding my own light and calling. While many people might compare or judge this Violet based on the recent Sutton Foster revival in New York City, McCartan and Hedequist’s Violet is less naïve, more stead-fast, and, indeed, a richer blend of strength and pain. Daigneault and Stern’s directions lift the musical to higher ground as an example of the noteworthy success of integrated song and dialogue, and the strong ensemble of local favorite performers remind us that we each have a story to tell onstage and offstage. Be the hero of your own story; be brought to light with SpeakEasy’s recent must-see production of Violet.