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.