BWW Review: Garden Theatre's VIOLET, An Unfussy Musical with a Worthy Cast
An unfortunate condition of the human experience is our tendency to exaggerate in our own minds the things we don't like about ourselves, assuming that they're as glaring and repellant to everyone else as they are to us.
That's a concept worth thinking about, but who'd have thought it was one worth making into a musical?
Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, that's who. Their 1997 musical, VIOLET, won a Drama Critics' Circle Award in its original Off-Broadway run and earned four Tony nominations with the 2014 Broadway revival starring Sutton Foster. The show's had a following ever since, especially among patrons who prefer understated musicals to the big, showy kind.
VIOLET follows a young woman of the same name as she travels by bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma in the year 1964, looking for a miracle. Her destination: a face-to-face meeting with the TV preacher whose messages have led her to believe God will heal the terrible scar that has disfigured her face since childhood.
Her fellow passengers soon work their way into her life. Violet's blemish doesn't much bother any of them, but she's too busy obsessing over the scar to realize that no one else is so put off by it.
For that matter, those of us in the audience never see a scar at all. There's no makeup or mask, but dialogue makes it clear that the scar is really there in the characters' world. The fact that it doesn't exist in ours underscores one of the show's central themes: we make too much of our own imperfections. In a twist on "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," VIOLET teaches that deficiency is in the eye of the beholder too.
This is a musical uninterested in juicy drama, grand ensemble numbers, or big reveals. It's an easy-paced folk-pop musical that hints at a twist from the beginning but only sort of delivers one, focusing more on internal conflict than external plot.
A single-act show, it could use an occasional shot in the arm. Some of the songs drag and none are especially memorable. As bus stories go, the pacing is a long, long way from Speed. The central love triangle between Violet and two boys on the bus (military officers Monty and Flick) feels all too familiar, and its engagement with the theme of interracial romance (Flick is African-American, Monty and Violet are white) feels underserved in a show that is ultimately about self-shame and misguided faith.
Still, VIOLET offers a lot to chew on. At the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden FL, director Tara Kromer's approach is gentle and intimate, inviting us all to consider how the world's perception of us might differ from the way we see ourselves - perhaps (gasp) for the better.
Holli Trisler makes her Garden debut following a long string of credits at Dollywood and Walt Disney World. She embodies the lead role, deftly balancing Violet's optimism and insecurities, her kindness and her guarded defense mechanisms, her street smarts and her naiveté. The character is interesting and complex, and Trisler leans into all of that.
Holding her own is Caiti Fallon in the role of Young Violet, who commands her fair share of scenes through creatively staged flashbacks. Fallon is a musical theatre student at Montverde Academy's Theater Conservatory, and it shows. There is often a greenness to be found in youth on a local stage; not so with Fallon. Her singing voice is strong, her ability to emote is remarkable, and her potential is apparent.
Also making his Garden debut is Raleigh Mosely II in the role of Flick. Mosely earned the biggest oohs and ahs from the audience with his smooth vocal runs. It helps, too, that his character is easy to root for - imperfect but in many ways the moral center of Violet's world. He shares most of his scenes with Brian Zealand (Monty), who made a big impression last year in his role as Winston in the Garden's innovative take on 1984. The role of Monty is less, well, Orwellian, but Zealand is nevertheless authentic and compelling here. Meanwhile, Sean Powell and Nicholas Wainwright make the most of roles that are either underwritten (Father) or small but instrumental (Wainwright's turn as the Preacher's producer).
But it's Russell Stephens' performance as the Preacher that really electrifies the Garden. Sitting there, I thought, "If someone walked in right now, they would 100% assume there was an actual church service in session at the Garden." If they stayed long enough, though, they'd catch on, as Stephens explores the character's darker side "off camera." And when he sings - wow.
Speaking of great singing, the Garden boasts a powerful ensemble, with vocal standouts including Wendy Starkand, Nyeshia Smith, Jade L. Jones, and Justin Mousseau. The show's folksy musical palette could have made this a rare contender for live musicians at the Garden, but then it's probably also true that VIOLET doesn't have the name recognition of something like Ragtime (for which the Garden did have pianists on stage earlier this season).
As violet is to purple, VIOLET is to The Color Purple and shows of its ilk - lighter, bluer, and maybe even a little purer, but also not nearly as rich or impactul, at least to my mind. Still, it's a show worth seeing, both for its substance and its place in Broadway history, and the Garden's staging is as lovely as a lilac. Besides, how often can you see a show called Violet in a venue called Garden? Pick your tickets while you can, with performances running through February 9th.
Seats are available at the theatre's official website, where you can also subscribe for the newly announced 20-21 season (revealed on VIOLET's opening night, it promises to be a great season - the first fully under the artistic direction of the Garden's newly arrived Joseph C. Walsh).
What did you think of VIOLET at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photos by Steven Miller Photography, courtesy of Garden Theatre