Shifting shades of meaning: “Violet,” A lovely musical fable on the nature of self-esteem, doesn’t quite strike with human honesty.

March 2, 2010.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Just who is this Violet? Is she the cocksure, feisty gal who can freeze a card shark with her gimlet eye? Or is she a superstitious walf, desperate for an evangelist’s healing hokum?

Violet’s dual identity rebuffs a complete investment in this lovely 1997 musical, redolent with the smoky aroma of folk opera, and we depart not so much with a human story as with a fable told in broad types about beauty and self-esteem.

Theater Latté Da opened “Violet” at the Guthrie Studio in Minneapolis last weekend. Peter Rothstein directs with a keen sense for the rhythms of Jeanine Tesori’s score and a feel for the searcher’s journey.

“Violet” is based on the short story ”The Ugliest Pilgrim,” by Doris Bettis. Britta Ollmann plays the adult version of a woman plagued by a scar (implied by a strand of hair hanging across her face) resulting form an accident when the blade of her father’s ax flew off the handle and hit her. Flinty, brittle in appearance yet strong constitutionally, she is taking the bus from North Carolina in 1964 to visit an evangelist (Alan Sorenson) in Tulsa, Okla., who preaches a healing touch. As Dorothy discovered with the Wizard, the old man is bunk.

On her journey, Violet befriends two servicemen, Monty (Randy Schmeling) and Flick (Azudi Onyejekwe). It is in their eyes that she will find the reflection of her own self-value. Maeve Moynihan  skips mirthfully as the teenage Violet in flashback, and Dieter Bierbrauer is the father --- with whom Violet has serious issues. One wonders if that is the scar in need of healing.

Ollmann commands the stage with ease, never seeming to strike a false note even if her character seems to have been crafted with an inherent contradiction. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with complexity or maddening contradictions. That’s what makes characters interesting. But Violet’s nature strikes at the very purpose of her journey. We are told two different things, and as such it’s too easy to hold her vulnerability at arm’s length.

Schmeling’s Monty is a free spirit sparking for fun before heading off to Vietnam. Onyejekwe carries the psychic weight of his skin color, which allows him to peer beneath violet’s disfigurement. Sorenson digs into the preacher with stock traits --- a fine performance caricature.

Tesori’s score manages an originality even as the sounds of bluegrass, gospel, and Memphis blues strike our ears with easy familiarity. Brain Crawley’s lyrics sit so well on the notes and Denise Prosek’s musical direction is crisp and articulate. The cast sings like an inspired church choir in ensemble and with great heart as soloists.

In the end, however, “Violet” does not have the emotional integrity and honesty to transport us. It’s a beautiful piece. But as Violet learned, beauty can be skin deep.

Theatre Latté Da’s ‘Violet’ at Guthrie Studio is powerful, heartfelt.

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.

Showing her showbiz roots: The Composer of “Caroline, or Change” has traveled a successful path since her first musical, which opens here next weekend.

February 28, 2010.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Lots of things are happening in Jeanine Tesori’s life.

“I’m working on something with Lisa Kron, Tony [Kushner] and I have a new piece cooking. David Lindsay-Abaire and I are in a rights discussion on something new.”

Then there’s the film score and “something I’m not a liberty to announce.”

That and a 12-year-old daughter will fill a day.

Tesori has become one of the hottest composers in show business – whether highbrow, lowbrow or post-brow. Her previous work with Kushner, of course, included “Caroline, or Change.” And her collaboration with Lindsay-Abaire was a little thing called “Shrek, the Musical.” She won a Drama Desk award for Nicholas Hytner’s “Twelfth Night” at Lincoln Center and penned scores for a stack of films that included “The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning,” Mulan II” and “The Emperor’s New Groove 2.”

So it might be interesting to look back at Tesori’s beginnings as a composer with “Violet,” her 1997 collaboration with librettist Brian Crawley. While Tesori is still waiting for her first Tony win (twice nominated) she did nab an Obie with “Violet” for its production at Playwright’s Horizon. The piece never achieved Broadway but it has made the regional circuit. Theater Latté Da opens a production Saturday at the Guthrie’s Studio.

Britta Ollmann, who grew up before our eyes at Children’s’ Theatre Company and then went to New York University, plays the young woman who seeks a miracle to heal her disfigured face and ends up with a deeper understanding of herself.

Interestingly, “Violet” takes place at roughly the same historical time as “Caroline, Or Change,” the early 1960s, and it too deals with racial themes in the South. Tesori agrees that themes of race, politics, religion and the unique nature of the Deep South make these very American plays.

However, subject matter does not link the shows in her consciousness. Rather, it was her discovery of her own creative process that marks “Violet” and “Caroline.”

“I started composing away from the keyboard,” she said. “You live inside the story and eventually it finds its way on paper – but that’s much later. You have to trust that it will get there. It might take a couple years, but it will be richer for it.”

Getting outside her skin

Tesori warmed up to this method – listening to characters rather than sitting at the piano with pad and pencil – when she ventured south for “Violet.” Just as a trip to New York can open the eyes of a Midwesterner, the South taught Tesori that American thrives beyond Manhattan. To write with any authenticity about characters spawned in the hothouse of Southern religion and culture, she would need to trade the spiritual influence of Cardinal Archbishop O’Connor for Flannery O’Connor.

“When I traveled to all these Pentecostal churches, I was amazed,” she said. “You have to acknowledge the power of a group of people with all their hands raised toward one person … the physical presence of that, and watching someone speak in tongues, or watching a snake handler. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, so I felt like had landed on another planet.

“We get stuck here, in New York, and we think this is American,” she continued. “And it’s just not so. American is so deep and so big and there are these unbelievable communities that we look at as the ‘other’ category.”

“Violet” has some of the swampy atmosphere of O/Connor – the writer, not the archbishop. It was adapted from “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” a story by Doris Betts. With a psyche informed by an American can-do attitude and religious belief in miracles, Violet travels to see a television faith healer. On her bus journey, she meets a young African-American soldier (Twin Cities newcomer Azudi Onyejekwe in Latte Da’s production). He becomes the source of her healing.

Tesori followed “Violet” by contributing to Hytner’s “Twelfth Night” and then writing songs for the stage adaptation of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Kushner and director George Wolfe courted her for “Caroline,” which the playwright envisioned as an opera. Tesori initially wasn’t convinced the piece needed to be sung through, but the creative evolution led her there. Her next year seems spoken for, but as Tesori looks ahead she likely will seek to again expand her ring of understanding – what she calls “the sense of the scholar in investigating world culture.”

“Tony has it, George Wolfe has, Lisa Kron,” She said. “They have this intense curiosity about the world that keeps going forward.”

Now all she has to do is finally win a Tony.

“I know, I’m the Susan Lucci of the Tonys,” she joked, referring to the often-nominated soap star. “I’m thinking in my gut that I’m just going to win when I’m 89. And that will be it for me.”

Something to look forward to.

Review: Violet discovers beauty in the music of scarred lives.

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.


2010.By Jamie Thomas, Metro Magazine.

VIOLET by Theater Latte Da at the Guthrie, 2/26-3/21 Violet is not a musical that belongs on Broadway, and that’s a good things says local actor/director Peter Rothstein, who directs the show this month at the Guthrie. According to Rothstein, Broadway’s “bells and whistles” and big dance numbers would ruin this intimate show. The title character is a young white woman living with a disfiguring scar duing the pressure-filled years before the Civil Rights Movement. She hops a Greyhound to travel from the hills of North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where rumor has it there’s a prophet who can heal her. On the journey she meets a young black soldier who breaks down her racial stereotypes and ultimately helps her heal herself in an unexpected way. “The ultimate theme to me is that miracles don’t happen at Mecca, they happen on the way to Mecca,” says Rothstein. The music by Jeanine Tesori (who also wrote the score for Tony Kushner’s Caroline, Or Change) is a mix of grace and gusto – influenced by gospel, rock and country. [;]

Back from Broadway: After nearly a decade in New York, Britta Ollmann returns to the theater scene that made her a child star.

February 2010.By Tim Gihring, Minnesota Monthly.

Britta Ollmann was a familiar face in the Twin Cities before she even learned to drive, having begun acting at the Children’s Theatre Company at are 8. Now 25, the Forest Lake native is taking to a Twin Cities stage this month for the first time since leaving for Broadway in 2003. She stars at the Guthrie Theater in Violet, a musical by Theater Latté Da about a young white woman who travels to the Deep South during the civil rights era and, in being an outside, finds the courage to be herself – a jounry of self-discovery to which Ollmann can relate.

You were in some plum plays on Broadway: A Catered Affair, etc. What made you decide to come home? I went to New York withough any expectations, except to see if I could be a twenty-something there, singing and dancing, and still keep my head on straight. But it’s easy out there to let your ambition or how you feel about your talent seep into personal relationships. Being here is an experiment to see what this business is like outside of New York – to expereience the Twin Cities as a grownup.

What was it like being a child actress, singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow then doing your math homework? I was a celebrity in the sense that I was the girl who was never in school. I’d be out for three months at a time and it was awkward, so the CTC was my high school. A lot of us there missed our proms, so we threw our own prom at the theater and company members were our dates.

The music of Violet was composed by Jeanine Tesori. Can we expect the same kind of rock-blues-gospel mix that she created for Caroline, or Change? Absolutely, and yet there is still that sense of grand musical theater. I am excited to sing some of the more country-type stuff. I think I could have some twang, though maybe I’m just kidding myself.

What’s your take on jazz hands: cool or not cool? Very cool. In the privacy of your own house.

Casting Complete for Theater Latté Da’s VIOLET; Azudi Onyejekwe Joins Cast

January 25, 2010.By Broadway World News Desk.

Theater Latté Da today announced that Azudi Onyejekwe will join the cast of Violet in the role of Flick, the young black soldier who teaches Violet (played by Children's Theatre Company childhood star Britta Ollmann) about beauty, courage and what it means to be an outsider. A recent graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Onyejekwe makes his Twin Cities theater debut in the production, directed by Peter Rothstein and featuring a score by Tony Award nominee Jeanine Tesori, the composer whose music brought Tony Kushner's book and lyrics for Caroline, or Change to life. Onyejekwe's musical credits also include Pippin, Into the Woods, Jesus Christ Superstar and, most recently, Once On This Island at the Cortland Repertory Theatre in upstate New York.

Violet, based on The Ugliest Pilgrim, a short story by Southern writer Doris Betts, won the Obie Award, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1997. Set against the backdrop of the Deep South in the early days of the civil rights movement, Violet is an uplifting musical about a physically and emotionally scarred young woman, and her journey to find a cure.

Single tickets start at $18 and are now on sale through the Guthrie Box Office at (612) 377-2224, toll-free 877-44-STAGE, (612) 225-6244 (Group Sales) and online at

Theater Latté Da is a Twin Cities theater company recognized for its ability to connect artists, audiences and communities through diverse stories that are both entertaining and enlightening. The company seeks to create new connections between story, music, artists and audience by exploring and expanding the art of musical theater. The 12th season also included the hit musical The Full Monty at the Ordway Center McKnight Theatre, October 15-November 8, 2009, and the return of the new holiday classic, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 at the Pantages Theatre, December 17-20, 2009. For more information, visit

The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963, is an American center for theater performance, production, education and professional training. The Guthrie is dedicated to producing the great works of dramatic literature, developing the work of contemporary playwrights and cultivating the next generation of theater artists. Led by Director Joe Dowling since 1995, the Guthrie opened a new three-theater home on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in June 2006.

The Guthrie is located at 818 South 2nd Street (at Chicago Avenue), in downtown Minneapolis. To purchase tickets or season subscriptions call the Guthrie Box Office at 612.377.2224 or toll-free 877.44.STAGE. For more information, or to purchase tickets online, visit