BWW Reviews: Los Angeles Premiere of VIOLET Provides an Unparalleled Spiritual Journey of Great Depth by Kelrik Productions
Violet/book & lyrics by Brian Crawley/based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts/music by Jeanine Tesori/Kelrik Productions/at the Monroe Forum Theatre of the El Portal, NoHo/directed by Joshua Finkel/musical direction by Joe Lawrence/through May 31 only
When Violet first premiered off-Broadway in 1997, it created a stir winning two prizes for Best Musical but didn't make waves until 2014 when it transferred to Broadway in an all new production starring Sutton Foster. It heartfully tells the story of a disfigured girl from Spruce Pine, North Carolina Violet Karl who makes a journey to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the hopes of being physically transformed by a faith healer. An accident occurred when she was a teen - a blade that her father was using cut her face, leaving an ugly scar - and Violet always blamed her father proclaiming that he did not want her to be pretty. She would have no male prospects and be forced to stay on to live with him on their small farm. The scar runs deep - "it reaches to your heart" new acquaintances tell her, so the journey to find a brand new 'glamorized' look means everything to Violet who will sacrifice just about anything to have it all.
Now in one of the first LA regional productions Violet comes to the El Portal in NoHo through Kelrik Productions starring the versatile Kristin Towers-Rowles as Violet, heading an electric cast and directed smoothly by Joshua Finkel. The biggest problem is that it closes May 31, having run a mere three weeks. It deserves an extension. A spiritual play of this magnitude with great blues and gospel music by Jeanine Tesori will be on everyone's must-see list, but there are many who will have to sorrowfully pass due to time constraints.
There are two beautiful elements to this show: Brian Crawley's book that focuses on the bus trip, on the journey, at the core and the people that Violet meets while, on the periphery, there are flashbacks, her memories of her teen years on the farm working and playing with her dad (Jason Chacon). The other is Jeanine Tesori's gem of a score that incorporates the sultry blues and bluegrass sounds of the somewhat sordid Memphis night spots and the rousing positive gospel of the Oklahoma church. Director Finkel carefully stages the bus on the ground floor of the tiny space and the flashbacks on the upper level behind, which also serves as space for the two-piece orchestra of keyboard and percussion. Making the musicians visible adds to the whole downhome quality of country music.
Plotwise, it's 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Bill. On the bus Violet (Towers-Rowles) meets two soldiers, one black Flick (Jahmaul Bakare) and the other white Monty (Michael Spaziani). Flick is attracted to her volatility. Her scar - which is not visible to the audience - makes her stand apart, different. Differences add up as both can appreciate what it is like to be bullied and left isolated, to cope on one's own. She plays poker with both, while in the background we watch her father teach her how to play "Luck of the Draw". Of course, she wins and gains an upper hand over both men, who remain a mysterious pair as far as Violet's future is concerned. As a teen (Jaidyn Young), Violet's dad gave her a quarter to see the picture show, and she became obsessed with movie star good looks. So envisioning her look for the future, she dreams of getting Gene Tierney's eyes and Rita Hayworth's angular face. Exterior beauty is her quest. Somehow, in Memphis, to the chagrin of Flick, Violet beds down with Monty, which, well she knows, is most likely a big mistake.Ultimately in Tulsa, having left both men behind, she encounters the preacher (Richard Lewis Warren), whom she sees as a fraud. But Violet refuses to accept failure after traveling this far and within a whirlwind of a scene she conjures up her father, has it out with him and learns to accept his flaws and her injury as an 'accident' pure and simple. She feels different from before and convinces herself that a miracle has taken place. What she learns later, is that the miracle is on the inside, not on the surface. She must learn to accept her permanent disfigurement with grace. On the plus side, her interior transformation does lead her back to Flick and to a depth of understanding that creates a superior state of happiness for them both.
Within Finkel's fine staging, the play is graced with a first-rate ensemble. Towers-Rowles conquers Violet three dimensionally. She feels her pain and takes us willingly along with her on every step of the fulfilling journey. Brava! Bakare has a magnificent singing voice and maintains a strong, silent demeanor as Flick. Spaziani is boyish, feisty and egotistical as Monty, appropriately keeping his real feelings underwrap. Young is adorable as the young tomboyish Violet, and every one of the supporting cast are a joy to watch: Chacon as the repenting father; Warren as the preacher losing control;Gail Matthius, displaying simply brilliant character work as an old lady on the bus and a sexy hotel singer; Erika Bowman with the astounding Mahalia Jackson voice; and Benai Boyd, Jeremy Saje and Justin Anthony Long rounding out the great group in a variety of roles. Musical director Joe Lawrence does fine work on keyboards; Samantha Marie does some nice choreography in the gospel scenes; Eril Austin, producer, has designed a simple but functional set; and Kathleen Forster has created period costumes that fit the bill.
This is a production triumph for Kelrik Productions and an acting tour.de.force for Miss Towers-Rowles who remains one of LA's best character and musical actresses. Get out and see Violet through May 31 only!
I was perplexed to hear some audience members question why Violet's scar is not visible. I wanted to say "Did you ever see The Elephant Man?" This is an interior journey not an exterior one...but this is Hollywood after all, and in the movie he would have to look at Violet's scar. Thank goodness for theatre and its emphasis on imagination!