BWW Review: VIOLET, Charing Cross Theatre
What a strange thing is Violet - indeed, what a strange thing is Violet, our eponymous heroine. But more of that later.
Violet is the kind of feisty, bright kid one meets in musicals, but her "I want..." is not an escape from an orphanage or a career on stage, but a miracle (literally, a miracle) cure for her facial scar, an accidental disfigurement which she believes has ruined any chance of happiness. So, suitcase in hand, she's off on a bus through the Jim Crow states beginning to feel the changes that the 1960s brought to rural America.
She meets a couple of squaddie buddies en route - Monty, all braggadocio and bullshit and his conveniently exact opposite Flick, older, quieter and black. Violet has quite a bit of Annie (of Get Your Gun) in her, and plays poker like a Reno hustler, over which the unlikely trio bond and, well, you can guess the rest.
And yet, even though the narrative arc is predictable (let's face it, that's hardly a disqualification for a hit musical), the characters' behaviours just aren't sustained by the little we know about them. Are these real people? I never believed that for a moment.
Would two soldier boys really fall in love with a girl we're told over and over again is shunned by men for being plain, as much as for being scarred? Sure, she's got wit and can hold her own in a man's world, but everything we learn about Monty and Flick suggest that such traits would work against her, not for her - at least over the timeframe of a bus journey?
Why would Monty and Flick, both with designs on Violet for (initially at least) different reasons, take her to a Memphis brothel where other options (cheaper and more likely to allay Violet's well-founded suspicions of their motives) be readily available? Great opportunity for a big number and one not missed though.
Desperate though she is, would a sparky kid like Violet really be taken in by a televangelist's promise of miracles? After all, she learned to bluff at poker at her father's knee.
Jeanine Tesori has written some fine songs in a variety of styles from country to rock to power ballad and 11 o'clock number, and Brian Crawley has provided heart-rending lyrics (rather more successful in that gig than in his work on the book), but the slow pace gives the production the feel of a staged concept album rather than a fully realised musical. In my mind, I found myself saying "We know, get on with it!".
The curious decision to run the show all-through at about 100 minutes is simply too gruelling to allow the songs to stand alone to be properly appreciated, the tunes merging into one long before the end. (I'll certainly dig out a soundtrack to hear songs like "Luck of the Draw", "Let It Sing" and "Raise Me Up" again, but I'm fully expecting to listen to most of the later songs as if for the first time.)
The singing - as it usually is at this venue - is excellent, with Kaisa Hammarlund giving the full pipes to Violet's emotional roller coaster ride on the Greyhound bus. There's some super work too from Kenneth Avery-Clark, whose cookie-cutter preacher is sung with real gusto, and Angelica Allen vamping it up in a Memphis music hall. We're not short of belt in this show!
But (and there's a few buts in this review) the fine voices are so often drowned out by a band mixed far too loud for the auditorium (laid out in the round with a revolve). I confess that my heart sank after the first few bars when Ethel Merman (never mind the spirited Amy Mepham as Young Violet) would have struggled to make her voice heard. Roll in some almost caricature Southern accents that drawl one word into the other and it's tricky at times to work out what's going on at all.
The issue of balance between music and voices seems to be getting worse instead of better in London's theatres. Can't the director or conductor sit in the cheap seats in the tech or in preview and hear what we hear? If they did, surely they would do something about it - it's musical theatre, not Metallica at Twickenham Stadium, after all.
There's a fine night's entertainment in this show, but it's suffocated by too many flaws to shine through. You can see how the writers have gone on to have successes subsequently (especially Tesori with Fun Home and Caroline, Or Change), but you can also see why it has taken 22 years for this show to get an outing in London.
Photo Scott Rylander