February 28, 2010.By Brad Richason, Examiner.
A persistent criticism of modern musicals is that they all-too-often substitute spectacle for substance. Having sat through my share of musicals that exchange the basics of honest storytelling for bombastic scores and distracting special effects, I’ve come to approach the form with caution. Such jaded preconceptions are absolutely abolished by Theater Latté Da in their production of Violet now playing in the Guthrie Theater’s intimate Dowling Studio. The story of a young woman whose facial scar hardly compares to her disfigured sense of self-worth, Violet avoids the superficial trappings of modern musicals, showcasing instead how a gifted cast and an inspired score can completely transform a theaterstage into a place of transcendent emotional power.
Set in 1964, as the Civil Rights Movement was pushing back against racial oppression, Violet follows the title character as she journeys by bus from rural Spruce Pines, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma on a mission to implore a famed televangelist to heal her facial scar; the result of a childhood accident in which her father’s axe blade broke loose and struck her face. Along the way Violet befriends two soldiers, brash Monty and the more sensitive Flick, an African-American accustomed to the hostilities of a prejudiced society. Through her emerging feelings for her two new companions, Violet is forced to reexamine both her preconceived assumptions of others and her scornful perception of herself.
For a storyline imbued with such deeply nuanced emotion, the mood never falters thanks to an invigorating score by celebrated composer Jeanine Tesori that fuses elements of R&B, gospel, and classic country. This rich mosaic of music dominates the atmosphere, whether depicting the lonesomeness of a dusty highway or the bawdy thrills of a smoky nightclub. So deftly intertwined are the musical styles that they never seem disparate or jarring, each flowing melodically off the other. Coupled with librettist Brian Crawley’s reflective lyrics, the music ranks as a stunning achievement, heightening complex emotions without overpowering the performers.
As for the performers, Britta Ollmann excels as Violet, poignantly capturing a fragile self-image that contrasts sharply with her stubbornly determined exterior. Through the jaunty On My Way to the wistful All to Pieces, Ollmann projects emotion that is heartrending with sincerity. And though the production forgoes any artificial scars on Ollmann’s face, it’s evident from Ollmann’s evocative performance that Violet, more so than any other character, is utterly blind to her own beauty.
In the role of Flick, Azudi Onyejekwe provides a carefully refined depth of feeling to a character whose justified caution won’t allow his giving into emotion. This tension is masterfully rendered in Onyejekwe’s moving take on Hard to Say Goodbye. Flick’s sensitivity is well counterbalanced by his friend and fellow solider, Monty, played with swaggering gusto by Randy Schmeling. Though impetuous and impertinent, Monty nevertheless comes across as wholly likeable thanks to Schmeling’s ability to convey the essential goodness at his character’s core.
Other than Flick and Monty, two other male characters loom large in Violet’s journey, both figures of guidance. A role that could have easily succumbed into a two-dimensional huckster, the televangelist preacher actually earns sympathy due to Alan Sorenson’s empathetic performance. Likewise, Dieter Bierbrauer’s portrayal of Violet’s father is amongst the production’s highlights, movingly mixing unwavering love with unending guilt.
Credit must also be given to a talented trio of musicians that manage to deftly shift from melodic phrase to phrase, underscoring a rich musical backdrop with sounds resonant enough to rival a full orchestra. With Denise Prosek on piano and keyboard, Carolyn Boulay on violin and viola, and Joseph Spoelstra on guitar and banjo, Jeanine Tesori’s versatile score is performed with marvelous precision.
Director Peter Rothstein ensures that the energized pace never drags even in the work’s heaviest moments. Utilizing a three-quarter in the round staging (featuring subtly detailed scenery by Penumbra Theatre Scenic Studio), the unimpeded action flows with a kinetic vivacity befitting the emotionally charged storyline.
Witnessing Theater Latté Da’s remarkably accomplished production of Violet from within the intimate environs of the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio will restore even the most skeptical theatergoer’s faith in the healing power of the musical. An absolute pleasure from beginning to end, this is one journey not to be missed.
Violet runs through March 21st.