Besides offering audiences some of the finest musical theater productions around, Los Angeles and its environs house some of the country’s finest university level musical theater programs.  Just check the performers’ bios the next time you see a show at a local CLO and you’ll find ample proof of the caliber of triple-threats UCLA, USC, Cal State Fullerton, and UC Irvine (to name just four) are turning out.

Another great way to discover future stars in training is to check out student productions on these campuses. Last year USC put on the best Brigadoon I’ve seen, and Cal State Fullerton’s A New Brain was so well received, it transferred first to a professional space in Orange County, then to North Hollywood’s El Portal.

CSUF faculty member Patrick Pearson, who also helmed The Celebration’s multi-award-nominated Altar Boyz, has now turned his directorial skills to Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet, and the resulting student production is as fine a one as you’re likely to see this year. Only the youth of the cast marks this as a student production.  In every other respect, it is Grade A musical theater at its best.

Violet (the 1997 show’s title as well as the name of its lead character) is one of the unsung treasures of contemporary musical theater.  Its glorious score by Tesori, whose music for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, Or Change, and Shrek The Musical has since earned her three Tony Award nominations, may well be Tesori’s best. With lyrics by Crawley and the lyricist’s powerful book (based on the story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts), Violet takes the audience, and its title character, on a journey from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with stops in Kingsport, Nashville, Memphis, and Tulsa. It is a journey in search of hope, forgiveness, and redemption, and powerful stuff for a musical, but sprinkled with enough comic interludes to make it every bit as entertaining as it is moving.

The life of thirteen-year-old Violet Karl (Hannah Mae Sturges) was inexorably changed on the day her father’s axe blade flew accidentally off its handle and left a deep, ragged scar stretched across her cheek and the bridge of her nose.  For five years, Violet’s father (Ben Sargent) saved every penny he could to pay for an operation to restore Violet’s unscarred face, only to learn that he had waited too long. Now, in 1964, two years after her father’s death, twenty-five year-old Violet (Amy Ganser) has pinned all her hopes and dreams on a televangelist (Chris Roque), who she is convinced can bring about a miracle and give her “a pair of Gene Tierney eyes, Judy Garland’s pretty chin, Grace Kelly’s little nose, Rita Hayworth’s skin, Ava Gardner’s eyebrows, Ingrid Bergman’s cheekbones …” A tough order for a miracle, but one Violet truly believes she can have granted if only she believes hard enough.

On her journey by Greyhound Bus, Violet meets two soldiers, smooth-talking Caucasian Monty (Neil J. Starkenberg) and more reserved African American Flick (Calvin Seabrooks). Though Violet is at first unsure about what to say and how to behave around a “Negro,” she soon finds herself completely at ease with the two men and proves herself a whiz at poker, earning herself the men’s respect. Despite, or perhaps because of her facial scar, Violet has become a spunky young woman, one who knows what she wants, and what she wants, at least right now, is Monty. Whether she will end up with him or with Flick is left unanswered until the final moments of the musical, and the exquisite, deeply moving “Bring Me To Light.” (“If I tell you my heart has been opened wide, if I tell you I’m frightened, if I show you the darkness I hold inside, will you bring me to light?”)

CSUF’s Violet is being staged off campus in the university’s second space, a charming black box theater which provides the perfect intimate atmosphere for Crawley and Tesori’s delicate but emotion-packed tale of pain and healing. With musical director Diane King Vann providing impeccable accompaniment on keyboard (with pre-programmed tracks adding a richer, almost orchestral quality), the entire cast soars vocally, in particular when joining voices for the glorious harmonies of Tesori’s vocal arrangements.

There’s not a weak link in the cast of eleven, beginning with Ganser’s radiant work as Violet, whose performance combines sweetness, fire, and passion. Sturges, looking hardly a day over thirteen, is a perfect match for Ganser, making it easy to imagine the more petite Violet turning into her taller, older self.  Whether singing solo or in tandem, the two actresses are so perfectly in sync that one has no trouble seeing them as the same person at different ages. Both sing with angelic sweetness and strength.

Sargent combines paternal strength and gentleness in equal measure to create a memorable Pa, whose feelings of guilt have scarred him almost as much as they have his daughter.  Seabrooks too makes a strong impression, with his dark, striking looks, resonant voice, and first-rate acting chops. Golden boy Starkenberg is such a perfect counterpoint for Seabrooks, both vocally and dramatically, that you will likely find yourself rooting for each to win Violet’s heart.

The rest of the ensemble perform multiple roles, with Roque stealing every scene he’s in as the hilariously over-the-top preacher Violet has come to see, as well as demonstrating terrific guitar-playing skills as a singing bus driver, in addition to other characters he plays. Among the many parts they embody to perfection, the three female ensemble members each has a solo to show off her stellar pipes.  Averi Jenkins (Landlady, Lula) channels Jennifer Hudson (or Holliday if you will) as a church choir soloist, Micaela Martinez (Mabel, Music Hall Singer) shimmies in fringed 60s mini-dress while belting out a bluesy “Lonely Stranger,” and Molly Stillens (Old Lady, Hotel Singer) sings a soulful “Anyone Would Do.”  Chris Duir (Leroy, Waiter, Mechanic, Earl) and Timothy Fitzsimmons (Billy Dean, Virgil, Creepy Guy), both excellent, complete the male ensemble.

Choreographer Tiffany Adeline Cole has figured out clever ways to integrate dance movements in a non-dancey show, particularly in some sensational “choir-ography” for the revival meeting sequence.  Kevin Slay’s vivid lighting, Ana Maria Campoy’s well-chosen costumes, and Abby Hankins’ effective sound design are all first-rate. The show’s set design makes inventive use of a bunch of mobile boxes which become everything from bus seats to altar.

Ultimately, though, what elevates this production from excellent to outstanding is Pearson’s direction.  Besides the spot-on performances he has elicited from his cast, Pearson finds imaginative ways to make use of the intimate black-box stage. Violet embarks on her journey on a bus created with a simple but fluid arrangement of boxes, which allows the bus to blossom like a flower as passengers move from facing forward to singing out in all directions the gorgeous harmonies of “On My Way.” Later, the same passengers become eyewitnesses to a young Violet/Father flashback. “Luck Of The Draw” juxtaposes Violet’s poker game against Monty and Flick with her younger self being taught the game by her father, past and present becoming one. All of these scenes are visually and emotionally stunning.

By the end of the evening, tears have turned to cheers as Violet reaches its emotion-packed climax. Kudos to all involved in this exquisite production.  In Pearson’s and his student actors’ gifted hands, CSUF’s Violet does its creators proud.

Grand Central Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
March 26, 2010

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