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BWW Review: Technically Superior VIOLET at ArtsWest Lacks Emotional Connection

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Jesse Smith, Casey Raiha, Brenna Wagner and
the ensemble of Violet at ArtsWest.
Photo credit: Michael Brunk

There's no doubt that Jeanine Tesori's music in the musical "Violet", currently playing at ArtsWest, is stirring and powerful but it's the lyrics and book by Brian Crawley that truly pack the punch in the show. But of course they would as the show is rife with hot button topics of that era as well as our own. And while the ensemble manages some of the tightest and most technically proficient performances I've seen I didn't always get from them the importance or danger associated with the stakes of those issues and so didn't always feel the emotional connection to the story.

It's 1964 and small town North Carolina girl Violet (Brenna Wagner) has had to be quite strong for most of her life owing to an accident from her youth where an axe blade struck her in the face and gave her a scar across her forehead, nose and cheek. Now an adult and having lived with the scar for years, Violet sets off on a journey to Oklahoma to track down a tele-evangelist whom she feels can heal her scar. On the bus trip she meets two soldiers, Flick and Monty (Jesse Smith and Casey Raiha) and falls for both of them. But there's danger in falling for these boys in that Monty is quite flighty and immature whereas the more stable Flick is black.

Director Andrew Russell has assembled a top notch cast and music director R.J. Tancioco has crafted them into a beautifully tight vocal ensemble. But as I said there's a lot of emotion running through this show what with issues such as race, beauty, and religion involved not to mention the stakes of a young girl hanging out with two young boys who might be sent off to Vietnam at any moment. Sure these issues are mentioned but I didn't always feel the actors connecting with the stakes and danger of the situation and so while vocally they were right on the money, the emotional resonance of what they were singing didn't always come through.

Wagner could not be more powerful for the role vocally. From the moment she opens her mouth to the end her voice soars and is crystal clear as is Eliza Ludlum who plays the younger version of Violet and the two counterbalance each other perfectly. Smith and Raiha make for two very dashing and likable soldiers making it easy to see why Violet would fall for both. David Caldwell turns in a very fun and boisterous preacher while Marlette Buchanan lends some killer pipes as his lead gospel singer in his show. And Brian Simmons has some quite touching moments as Violet's guilt ridden father.

So the talent is all there and the focused and bare boned intimate staging lent itself well to getting up close and personal to the story, but the lack of connection to the emotion kept the show from becoming great. And so with my three letter rating system I give ArtsWest's "Violet" a MEH++. Yes that's two pluses as the technical prowess and tightness of the ensemble deserved it but without that emotional connection it was just missing a key element to push it over the top.

"Violet" performs at ArtsWest through April 3rd. For tickets or information contact the ArtsWest box office at 206-938-0339 or visit them online at www.artswets.org.


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