A physically scarred young woman takes a road trip towards healing and redemption in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s New York Drama Critics’ Circle-winning 1997 off-Broadway musical Violet, streamlined for Broadway in 2014 and now opening Chance Theater’s 20th-anniversary 2018 season in an intimate staging that is as imaginatively directed as it is powerfully performed.

 The life of thirteen-year-old Violet (Rebeka Hoblik) was inexorably changed the day an axe blade flew accidentally off its handle and left a deep, ragged scar stretched across her cheek and the bridge of her nose, prompting the young girl’s father (Johnny Fletcher) to set aside his every penny to pay for an operation to restore his daughter’s unscarred face, only to learn that he had waited years too long.

 Now, in 1964, two years after her father’s death, twenty-five year-old Violet (Monika Peña) has pinned all her hopes and dreams on a televangelist (Chris Kerrigan) she is convinced can give her a movie star’s beauty, a tough order for a miracle, but one Violet trusts will be granted her if only she believes hard enough.

Traveling by Greyhound Bus from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with stops in Kingsport, Nashville, Memphis, and Tulsa, Violet meets two soldiers, the smooth-talking Monty (Jordan Schneider) and the more reserved Flick (Taylor Fagins), and though she is at first unsure about what to say and how to behave around a pair of Vietnam-bound military men, let alone one who is a “Negro,” she soon finds herself bonding with the soldiers over conversation and poker.

 More importantly, with both men showing a hankering for the hitherto uncourted lass, Violet’s cross-country bus trip promises to be one well worth taking, miracle cure or not, and sprinkled with enough comic interludes to make it every bit as entertaining as it is moving.

Violet’s joys are many, beginning with Tesori’s glorious bluegrass/gospel-based score, one of the best from the four-time Tony-nominated composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, Or Change, Shrek The Musical, and 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) evoking an America in the midst of profound societal change, and you’ve got a musical that more than deserved its slightly trimmed-and-revised seventeenth-anniversary Broadway debut with Sutton Foster as its leading lady.

 Now it’s Chance Theater resident artist Peña’s chance to shine, and shine she does in a performance of depth, guts, humor, pain, and resilience. Add to that sensational vocals that bring Tesori and Hawley’s songs to glorious life and you’ve got a radiant, career-propelling star turn that alone makes Violet a must-see.

It helps enormously that the Chance has entrusted its season opener to 2016-17 Director Of The Year Scenie winner (and double Best Director Ovation Award nominee) Kari Hayter.

As she did last year with Parade’s ingenious use of straight back chairs, Hayter takes an inspired design concept and makes it the production’s leitmotif and linchpin.

 Walls of suitcases, suitcases, and more suitcases surround Fred Kinney’s otherwise bare set as portable valises stand in for bus seats on Violet’s journey from North Carolina to Arkansas, a different configuration for each bus, a surreal look that proves just right for a musical whose lines between past and present and reality and dreams get blurred throughout.

Serving too as metaphors for the emotional baggage Violet carries with her wherever she goes, Hayter and Kinney’s suitcases hold a gut-puncher of an eleventh-hour surprise that is the very definition of inspired.

 Schneider’s cocky charmer of a Monty and Fagins’s sweet, genuine mensch of a Flick provide terrific romantic-triangular support.

 OCSA freshman Hoblik makes a memorable Chance Theater mainstage debut as a Young Violet with pipes to match her older self’s, and San Diego musical theater staple Fletcher does his richest work to date as Violet’s almost equally wounded Dad.

Completing the cast of principals, the big-voiced Kerrigan nails the Preacher’s religious fervor to rival TV’s most fervent televangelists.

 Devin Collins (Leroy), Janet McGregor (Old Lady), Brian Wiegel (Virgil), Natasha Reese (Lula Buffington), and Jade Taylor (Music Hall Singer) provide top-notch support in a variety of cameos and featured roles, the three women given solo vocal showcases which they ace.

Robyn Manion once again scores highest marks both for musical direction and for leading Violet’s sensational four-piece band.

Nick van Houten’s vibrant lighting, Elizabeth Cox’s pitch-perfect backwoods-meets-military period wear, Megan Hill’s equally spot-on properties, and Kenji Kang’s expert sound design complete another striking Chance Theater production design, with dialect coach Wyn Moreno meriting his own snaps.

Wade Williamson is stage manager. Christopher M. Albrecht is associate choreographer. Mauri Anne Smith is associate scenic designer. Sophie Hall Cripe is dramaturg. Moreno understudies the role of the Preacher.

Over the past twenty years, the Chance’s reputation as Orange County’s finest intimate theater has remained unchallenged. The company’s latest musical mini-masterpiece makes it abundantly clear just why.

*Jimmy Beall, Curtis Humphrey, Manion, and Jorge Zuniga

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Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

-Steven Stanley
February 10, 2018
Photos: Doug Catiller, New Image

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