March 1, 2010.By Ed Huyck, MinnPost.
Composer Jeanine Tesori has gained fame in recent years for her award-winning work on Broadway musicals, including "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Caroline, Or Change," which was the highlight of last year's Tony Kushner celebration at the Guthrie Theater. Earlier in her career, Tesori collaborated with Brian Crawley on "Violet," a powerful and heartfelt work that is getting a revival this month from the able hands at Theatre Latté Da.
Set over a few days on a hot bus trip through the south in 1964, "Violet" focuses on characters lost amid a sea of doubt. The title character is a young woman whose face has been horribly scarred in an accident. She is on her way to Tulsa, where a TV preacher has been performing miracles. Her wish to have her face returned to beauty, so people will stop judging her just on the surface.
On the trip she befriends a pair of soldiers, including an African-American sergeant, Flick, who knows all about being judged on the surface. While the story has plenty of forward momentum, the heart of it occurs inside, as Violet struggles with her past while Flick and fellow soldier Monty try to get Violet to truly see herself.
The play turns on a pair of powerful moments at the end — one where Violet confronts the spirit of her dead father, the man who accidentally scarred her with an ax, and then one with Flick, when both of their hearts are laid bare.
Crawley's book and lyrics are good, but the show rides on Tesori's score.
Embracing folk, country and gospel traditions, the music feels authentic to the time frame and to the hard emotions displayed on stage.
The cast is equal to the challenge, led by Britta Ollmann as the title character, Azudi Onyejekwe as Flick and Randy Schmeling as Monty.
The directing from Peter Rothstein focuses all of our attention back on the actors and the characters. The same can be said for the set, which symbolizes the endless highway and various buses without actually showing them. Even Violet's scar is symbolic.
All of this makes for an evening that does nothing fancy — just shows us the heart and joy and pain of everyday life.
"Violet" runs through March 21 at the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd St. Tickets are $18-$30. For information, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.