Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Violet"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Larry Stark


"Violet"

Music by Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics & Book by Brian Crawley
Based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts
Directed by Paul Daigeneault
Musical Direction by Douglas Horner
Conductor Paul Katz
Choreography by Kirsten McKinney

Set Design by David Fortuna
Lighting Design by Eric Levenson
Costume Design by Michelle Macadaeg
Sound Design by Ben Arons
Dialect Coaching by Nina Pleasants
Stage Manager Justin O'Shea

Young Vi............................................................................Kristina Bjornstad
Violet.......................................................................................Bridget Beirne
Father..................................................................................Gregory Bouchard
Flick...........................................................................................David Jackson
Monty...........................................................................................David Krinitt
Leroy Evans/Waiter/Mechanic/Bus Driver 3/Earl...........................John Porcaro
Bus Driver/Preacher/Rufus/Bus Driver 4..........................................Sean Roper
Old Lady/Gospel Soloist/Old Lady 2............................................Mary Callanan
Creepy Guy/Bus Driver 2/Billy Dean/Virgil....................................Michael Forte
Woman with fan/Landlady/Hotel Singer/Mabel............................Michelle Dowd
Woman knitting/ Music Hall Singer/Hotel Singer 2..........Gretchen Goldsworthy
Radio Singers.......................................Sean Roper, John Porcaro, Michael Forte

Orchestra for "Violet"
Keyboard...............Paul Katz
Guitar.....................Matt Joy
Bass...........Dino Monoxelos
Percussion........Kevin Burke
Violin................Conan Hom

As the lights come up in "Violet" A rhythmic klop is revealed as the sound of a man, deep in a forest, chopping wood at a wide round tree-stump --- but Eric Levenson's lights also reveal a pretty young woman sitting beside her suitcase on the front seat of a bus; her blonde hair is pulled back, but a few dozen strands hang incongruously down her right cheek. A young girl skips through the forest, and she and then the woman sing a child's ditty, and as the woodsman swings he shouts a horrified warning at his daughter. That girl and that woman are the same, separated by twelve years. The tall, gnarled, solid trees in David Fortuna's set will remain, even though the seats that build four different busses, and a bed, roll in and out, as do a night-club set, a tele-Evangelist's set, and bus-station lunch-counters roll effortlessly in and out. For this play is an odyssey as much into the mind as it is a trip from a tiny town in North Carolina to Tulsa, and part-way back. There are dreams and fantasies, and Violet talks with her dead father, with herself at thirteen, as easily as she does new people on the bus. She is searching for a miracle.

Bridget Beirne, playing Violet, has a lovely face, but every new acquaintance turns away in shock when they glance at her, and she explains that an axe-blade split her face when she was thirteen. This is 1964, and she is on her way to a televised religious healer's church. She wants "Gene Tierney's eyes, Cyd Charysse's eyebrows" --- she wants what every young girl wants: to be suddenly, miraculously beautiful after a life of taunts, depression, frustration and despair. And it will spoil nothing to reveal that she gets a miracle, though not what she expects.

Director Paul Daigneault moves the center of attention around this set as smoothly as Billy Wilder did his long-focus camera, moving from memory to dream to fantasy to reality to intensely emotional song in one seamless whole. He melts actors out of the crowd into quick, solid individuals for seconds or minutes. (I counted three different wigs worn by Mary Callanan, but only when I noticed the same magnificent voice emerging from several new women.) There is a flow to this production which is truly magical.

Sixth-grader Kristina Bjornstad as young Vi and Gregory Bouchard as her Father remain solidly real in their reverie sequences, and David Krinnit (Monty) and David Jackson (Flick) as two young soldiers attracted to Violet on their bus-trip together are equally solid rivals. Monty is a brash, suave (White) airborne corporal who probably loves his motor-cycle more than he every can any woman for very long; Flick, an older and more sensitive (Black) drill-sergeant worries more about consequences. Neither one of them, though, is quite prepared to deal with Violet's sincere, innocent honesty.

All of these apparent stereo-types continually surprise by turning human --- in the same way that Violet demonstrates the brand of cut-throat poker daddy taught her. And, remember, this is 1964, with a "not much of a war" waiting in the wings, in a South where even a master-sergeant's stripes can't buy a Nigger respect.

And the six fellow-passengers, doing three or four roles apiece, get their moments centerstage. Sean Roper's sleazy religious charlatan, Michelle Dowd's Memphis landlady, Mary Callanan's old lady, John Porcaro's snotty waiter, Michael Forte's Virgil, and Gretchen Galsworthy's night-club singer all belie the fact that each of them merge into three or four other roles apiece.

Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley have used a wide range of styles here to make songs that establish character and further the plot, all of them rolling on a solid gospel/blues beat, moving to and then back from a rehearsal of the gospel-revival television show all purple-robed and riotous. For his take on life, the drill-sergeant begins with a simple marching-cadence and rolls into ringing advice to accept life and "Make It Sing". The score is as dense and meaty as the plot. Another triumph for Daigneault and The SpeakEasy Stage Company.

I have said as much before, but despite the sad, bloated gasbags floated through The Wang and The Colonial all last year there is good, compelling musical theater here in Boston. There have been rescues of the neglected --- as Spiro Veloudos did with "Nine" at The Publick and "She Loves Me' At The Lyric, and as The Boston Conservatory did with "Side Show" and "Anyone Can Whistle" --- re-thinking classics as Larry Carpenter did with "The Mikado" at The Huntington, re-creations --- as Bob Eagle continues to do at Reagle Players --- and thoughtful revivals such as "The King And I" at Turtle Lane and the entire season out at The North Shore Music Theatre. But those are all "big-theatre" shows with Broadway track-records. Paul Daigneault at The Speakeasy Stage Company --- after trying to rescue "Chess" and "Merrily We Roll Along" --- continues to bring Boston the best new musicals bubbling up from off-Broadway.

Daigneault does it --- as he did with "Triumph of Love" and "A New Brain" --- by mining the undergraduate talents being trained at The Boston Conservatory, by keeping his staging fluidly specific, by giving everyone in his great casts a moment to themselves, and by finding the voices that can do the work, mixing experienced with emerging performers. Here David Jackson created a role in "Grand Hotel" on Broadway and Mary Callanan has done national tours and regional theater and Gregory Bouchard did "Forever Plaid" forever here --- but Sean Roper has sung church music, Michelle Dowd has been an actress as much as a singer, Bridget Beirne is a BFA at Boston Conservatory, and Kristina Bjornstad is a sixth-grader. He is building a pool of performers Boston an be proud of, and his eye for excellent new musicals like "Violet" is impeccable.

Love,
===Anon.

[ IRRELEVANT PERSONAL NOTE:
I saw "Grand Hotel" trying-out here in Boston three times from front-row seats, and though I can't remember which of the identical "Jimmies" in that show David Jackson played, their riff "ChufoffadiduwopShiBopdubam" still rattles, unforgettable, through my mind from time to time. Welcome back, David. ]


"Violet" (till 19 February)
SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON
1(616)426-2787

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