L.A. audiences can at last discover one of the unsung treasures of contemporary musical theater as Kelrik Productions presents the Los Angeles County Premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s 1997 musical gem Violet, and a superbly performed L.A. debut she makes.
The life of thirteen-year-old Violet Karl (Jaidyn Young) was inexorably changed 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 (Jason Chacon) 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 (Kristin Towers-Rowles) has pinned all her hopes and dreams on a televangelist (Richard Lewis Warren), 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.
A road trip from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with stops in Kingsport, Nashville, Memphis, and Tulsa, takes both the audience and Violet herself on a journey in search of hope, forgiveness, and redemption—heady stuff for a musical, but sprinkled with enough comic interludes to make it every bit as entertaining as it is moving.
On her journey by Greyhound Bus, Violet meets two soldiers, smooth-talking Caucasian Monty (Michael Spaziani) and more reserved African-American Flick (Jahmaul Bakare). Though Violet is at first unsure about what to say and how to behave around a pair of military men, let alone one who is a “Negro,” she soon finds herself completely at ease with the two soldiers and proves herself a whiz at poker, earning herself the men’s respect.
Despite, or perhaps because of her facial scar (which the musical has us imagining rather than seeing), 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?”)
Violet’s joys are many, beginning with Tesori’s glorious score, one of the best from the four-time Tony-nominated composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, Or Change, Shrek The Musical, and the current Broadway hit Fun Home. Factor in Crawley’s equally fine lyrics and the lyricist’s powerful book (based on the story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts), and you’ve got a musical that more than deserved its seventeenth-anniversary Broadway debut last year with Sutton Foster in the title role.
Violet’s Los Angeles County premiere benefits enormously from the intimacy of the El Portal Monroe Forum Theater, and truth be told, if there was ever a musical more conducive to an intimate staging rather than one on a Broadway scale, Violet is that musical.
Director Joshua Finkel uses the Monroe Forum’s almost-arena stage and problematic horseshoe seating quite imaginatively indeed. Caster-mounted swivel chairs simulate the movement of the bus that takes Violet on her journey, then transform themselves into assorted seating areas—bar, coffee shop, etc. Also ingenious are Finkel’s use of silhouettes seen through an upstage door and high-up projections that help situate us on Violet’s trek along with illustrating Crawley’s lyrics.
The performances Finkel has inspired from his superb L.A.-based cast (four of whom appear though the grudging, albeit temporary, courtesy of Actors Equity) could not be better, beginning with Towers-Rowles, whose dynamic yet meticulously understated star turn matches her Scenie-winning performance as Dot in Sunday In The Park With George.
Not only does the SoCal musical theater treasure vanish inside Violet’s small-town country-girl skin, the sweetness, anger, fire, and hope Towers-Rowles brings to the role reveal powerful acting gifts equaled by her soaring vocals in “Surprised,” “Lay Down Your Head,” “Look At Me.”
It’s hard to imagine a better choice to play Monty than Spaziani, in Violet’s words “a boy in the skin of a man, (who) thinks he’s a born gift to women, thinks he’s irresistible.” With his All-American looks and country boy charm, the brand-new-to-L.A. triple threat not only fits neatly into Monty’s khakis, his acting chops are as tiptop as his voice is gorgeous.
Bakare commands the stage as Flick, providing Spaziani’s Monty with a formidable rival for Violet’s affections in addition to investing the role with strength, warmth, dignity, and some glorious, operatically trained pipes.
Chacon’s cocky, hip-hop-loving Luke of last year’s Altar Boys is nowhere to be seen in his heartbreakingly real take on Violet’s guilt-ridden father, opposite whom 14-year-old Broadway vet Young brings to vivid life all of teen Violet’s innocence and spunk.
The always stunning Boyd’s Music Hall Singer belts “Lonely Stranger” like nobody’s business, Bowman proves a fine and feisty Landlady and one amazing Gospel Singer aka Lula Buffington in “Raise Me Up,” and Matthius is an absolute hoot as the old lady Violet meets on the Greyhound, one hot mess of a redheaded hooker, and a sexy hotel singer whose killer pipes rock the house with “Anyone Would Do.”
Long makes an impressive L.A. debut as all the younger male characters, including Billy Dean, the boy teen Violet loses her virginity to despite knowing it’s to win a dare. Saje does standout work too in at least half a dozen roles, which is about as many as each of his ensemble-mates gets to play. As for the charismatic preacher Violet hopes will give her a miracle, Lewis has clearly done his televangelist homework, and scores an A on it.
Music director Joe Lawrence brings out the best in the glorious harmonies of Tesori’s vocal arrangements, in addition to playing keyboards in the production’s live band, joined by Barrett Wilson on guitar and Chacon on percussion.
Though not a dancy show per se, choreographer Samantha Marie gives Violet at least one fun kick-up-your-heels number to back up “Lonely Stranger,” and Marie’s lighting design hits just the right notes as well.
Scenic designer Erik Austin gives Violet a simple but effective set with an appropriately country feel. Kathleen Forster (costumes), Debi Hernandez (wig styling), and Lester Wilson (prop master) get high marks for their design contributions as well.
Marie is stage manager and Lainie Pahos assistant stage manager.
As to whether it’s Flick, Monty, both, or neither who ends up winning Violet’s heart, I’ll leave that for you to discover. One thing is certain, however. Violet The Musical most certainly won mine.
Monroe Forum at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
May 15, 2015
Photos: Brooke Griffin Photography