Friday, May 31, 2019

A journey toward healing: 'Violet' is the 2019 Eclipse production

In its third year of production as an outgrowth of Summer Stock Stage, Eclipse has mounted the musical "Violet," running through June 15 at Phoenix Theatre.

Violet (left front) and other travelers sing "On My Way" (with young Violet in background)
This is a thoroughly professional-looking show to represent the organization's self-described "emerging artists program." Ten of this show's dozen actors are alumni of Summer Stock Stage, a program for high-school theater talent. As seen in preview Thursday night, "Violet" gave me some problems with its early imbalance of music and dialogue and with aspects of its story. But the production values seem to represent "Violet" well, and the team headed by producer-director Emily Ristine Holloway has provided a good showcase for the burgeoning professionals who perform with unrelenting gusto and verisimilitude.

The creation of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (lyrics and book), based on Doris Betts' "The Ugliest Pilgrim," "Violet" is a travel story born of a young woman's desperation to be relieved of disfigurement so that the beautiful self she dreams of being can emerge. An accidental axe wound as a girl has left her with an ugly facial scar, and the maturing Violet has concluded that a faraway faith healer holds the key to her healing. She embarks on a bus journey in 1964 from her North Carolina home to the televangelist's home base in Oklahoma.

The audience is left to imagine what the scar has done to Violet's appearance, which is a powerful choice: Elizabeth Hutson's unscarred appearance helps us to share in how much Violet has internalized the wound's effect on her, and we're invited to do the same. Hutson movingly displayed Violet's determination as well as her focus on appearances. This habit has given her an understandably superficial focus on what beauty is; at the same time, however, her sharpened powers of observation and insight open up a road to recovery for her that at length depends upon internal resources.

She connects with strangers along the way — an Old Lady passenger and, chiefly, a couple of soldiers on leave. Song styles of various popular genres are exploited throughout, though the balance seems a little too musically overdriven at first to properly set the show's dramatic context. The songs are all idiomatically performed, however, to the accompaniment of a small band near the rear of the stage led by Nathan Perry (Jeanne Bowling gets the music director credit, which yields golden results in the ensembles).

The military men hold the keys to Violet's progress — the white man, Monty (John Collins), has a veneer of charm that modulates his overriding machismo somewhat; his black buddy, Flick (Mark Maxwell), a more sympathetic character, has had any tendencies to come on strong and self-assertive in the white world smoothly hidden.  Both will have their parts to play in bringing out a fresh self-recognition in Violet. Without getting too specific, it's Flick's empathy with Violet's trauma as a near-outcast in mid-sixties Dixie that makes the more crucial contribution.

Our popular culture has thrown up examples of both white-savior and black-savior stories. I wish we had a better approach to dealing in contemporary entertainment with ways of bridging the racial divide. The attraction, I suppose, is to bring forward individual stories, even with hackneyed elements, as pointing toward a solution, or at least some enlightenment about our common humanity. That it must take just one individual life-changing encounter at a time serves inadvertently to reinforce pessimism about race in America. But that's entertainment.

Suffice it to say that "Violet" emphasizes that the truest pilgrimages are those difficult journeys inside ourselves. Hutson's performance, with the background resonance of Leah Broderick as the young Violet, shows the progress toward such a realization can be both tuneful and revelatory. Her songs, together with solo showcases well-handled by Collins and Maxwell, make Violet's journey deeply involving.

Eric J. Olson as Violet's father was electrifying in several scenes that indicate how he shares his daughter's trauma while lacking the gifts and means to guide her healing. Carlos Medina Maldonado as the Preacher gave full-fledged embodiment to the show-biz side of healing, in which evangelical ministry mixes sincerity with a touch of cynicism that's the opposite of what Violet needs. The production numbers with the gospel choir, set to sparkling choreography by Cherri Jaffee, capture both the promise and illusion that blend in Violet's glamour-fed visions of being whole and beautiful. The wholeness turns out to be delivered on another level of reality entirely, and this production brightly honors that genuine destination  — which isn't Oklahoma after all.

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