Violet at the Spinning Tree Theatre – 4.5 stars
Violet, music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics and book by Brian Crawley, based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, Directed and Choreographed by Michael Grayman and Andy Parkhurst, Musical Direction by Angie Benson, Scenic Designer Laura Burkhart, Lighting Designer Lacey Pacheco, Costume & Properties Designer Gary Campbell, Sound Designer Sarah B. Putts, Production Manager Mark Hamilton, Stage Manager Diane Bulan, runs through November 23. See SpinningTreeTheatre.com.
A woman with a facial scar travels by bus to a faith healer she hopes will cure her. Along the way, she reveals through her interactions with the people she meets that she has an emotional scar as well. Will she be healed? Will she learn to live with herself? Although Violet is the victim of prejudice, she is not as wise as she thinks she is, and has her own prejudices. These are the themes of Violet, an untraditional, modern musical with depth and a challenging script that the Spinning Tree Theatre more than performs, it overcomes.
Typical of the heights hit by the production was the scene where two groups sit at separate tables playing poker. On the left is young Violet with her father, impoverished in their mountain home, and on the right sits older Violet 23 years later, playing with two military men. The group of five sing in interwoven themes that demonstrate the contrast between young Violet, older Violet, and their conditions. Unlike a typical musical, the action doesn’t stop while the actors dance around the stage. Instead the musical numbers carry the story forward. Even the scene changes progress the action. The performers simply keep going with the previous scene until the new staging is in place for the next one! It’s a feat of choreography and musical performance that places Spinning Tree at the top of community theatre or theatre of any size. While the production never devolves to talk singing, and there is always some kind of melody, the songs are complex, multi-layered, meant to carry a message instead of to stand on their own. As a result, the tunes didn’t stick in my head and I didn’t find myself humming anything from the show later on. But that’s by design, I suspect. This is not your 1980s musical.
The Spinning Tree theatre plays in different venues, using the Just Off Broadway Theatre this time, which will also be the venue for its next shows, Black Pearl Sings! and Fiddler on the Roof, in 2015. The space seats 200 in a ‘U’ shape, a stage in the round. They sell inexpensive refreshments in the lobby and the bathrooms are clean. A major asset to the production was the costuming, dressing Violet and her family like plain Janes, avoiding sexualized styles, and facilitating quick characterizations of the characters the play brings us just briefly. The stage was beautifully lit in violet color, and even featured video on a screen above the stage. Having the live band behind scrim, a curtain of translucent material, allowed us to catch a shadow of the musicians without their distracting from the show.
Unusually for such a large cast, there were no weak actors. Lauren Braton as Violet has a beautiful singing voice and draws us to empathize with her character even as we are repelled by some of her beliefs and judgments. Even her body language speaks to her character’s plainness and defeated mentality. Kudos to Bob Wearing, who was only given bit parts, but five of them. He made each distinct and funny. There is a guy who can take a bit part in a movie and make it notable enough to get noticed by the director and made into a star. Major kudos to Devyn Trondson, a teenaged actress who played 13-year-old Violet. Her happy energy and innocence, despite the trauma of her scar, serve as a counterpoint to the older Violet who calls others “stupid” but is filled with self-loathing. The choreography added dynamism to the conflict and even built to a fight, a delightful choice. Kudos also to Linnaia McKenzie who moved the Lord Himself in the church scene.
Violet had some unfortunate weaknesses, but they all derived from the script, not the production. (Of course, the director is responsible for choosing and then tweaking the script, but I cannot fault Spinning Tree for anything in this nuanced show.) You can tell that the script stems from a book, because of the loose ends. Without giving spoilers, I will say that plots involving a young boy, a woman’s last words, and the status of Violet’s scar did not resolve in a satisfying way. The manner in which she got the scar did not seem realistic to me. It would certainly have killed a real girl of that size. I did not sense chemistry between Violet and her suitors — but again, not the fault of the cast. It’s the script that put so much time into a dead end relationship that surely made some comment about humanity (but what was the point, and was it a point that needed to be made?) and starved time from the other relationship. It’s the script that made the military men ignore Violet’s heart wrenching story, coldly lacking empathy, and then take a sudden interest in her at the disco. Does Violet resolve her discord with her father or not? What exactly is happening in the hallucination scene? I understand that Violet is a flawed character, not a stereotype, but the script makes her unlikeable in the opening, when she insults people and makes a racially insensitive comment. It’s a shame that the analogy between a white woman having a scar and a black man having dark skin was hinted at, but not explored.
Also, I’m skeptical of the choice to leave the scar off of Violet’s face. Blah blah, it’s supposed to represent that there’s nothing wrong with Violet except her inner self, but isn’t it also giving into (rather than fighting) the truth that an actress with a scar just isn’t likable from the audience? Going scarless is how it was done on Broadway, but it might have been daring to give Violet the scar and then remove it symbolically when or if (I won’t spoil it) the physical or emotional scar changes.
When I was younger, an encountered a difficult play, I would assume that I was just not smart enough to get it. I’ve seen enough theatre now to know that the book intrudes to much into the play, which should have its own heart. So what do I do with a hearty 5 star production, glorious, with a challenged script? I’ll knock it just half a star. The interpretation of Violet by the Spinning Tree theatre was so beautiful that it stands as a work of art on its own, separate from the script. I’m glad to give it 4.5 stars and wish it were more.