A review of “Violet,” now on stage at ArtsWest. In it, Violet goes on a journey to a Tulsa televangelist who she thinks can repair her scarred face. Along the way, she learns a valuable lesson.
They say beauty is only skin deep. But don’t tell that to the central character in the chamber musical “Violet.”
As portrayed at ArtsWest Playhouse by Brenna Wagner, this lonely rural North Carolina woman has been nursing a big hurt since her father accidentally whacked her in the face with an ax.
Violet has stored up every painful bullying she’s received, and every reaction of shock and revulsion to her prominent facial scar. And yet, steadfastly if not so believably, this embittered woman desperately believes a televangelist has the healing power to make her disfigurement disappear.
by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. Through April 3 at ArtsWest Playhouse, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle; $19-$45 (206-938-0339 or artswest.org).
An award-winning 1997 show (based on a Doris Betts short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim”), “Violet” wants the audience to believe in miracles too — mainly that two Army buddies (one black, one white) meet the protagonist on her way to find that televangelist in Tulsa, and both fall for her, and teach her to love herself, scar and all.
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Garnished with a bountiful score by composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”) and writer-lyricist Brian Crawley that dips into the Americana traditions of bluegrass, gospel and rockabilly, “Violet” is a feel-bad, feel-good affair, smartly staged by director Andrew Russell on a narrow, raised platform. It’s also something of a fairy tale, with an outcome in clear sight of the (imaginary) Greyhound bus where most of the one-hour, 45-minute tale unfolds.
Crawley’s adaptation inserts flashbacks of a more innocent, adolescent Vi (the ingratiating young Eliza Ludlam) and her widowed, unnamed father (Brian Simmons, in excellent voice), who tries his bumbling best to help his daughter cope after the accident. In one up-tempo number, “Luck of the Draw,” he teaches Vi how to play poker as a way of attracting boys.
Russell smoothly weaves past and present bits together, while Alice Gosti’s crisp choreography allows the dozen-member cast to gracefully rearrange themselves, and also dance on Christopher Mumaw’s set without looking like they’re wriggling in a sardine can.
The cast comprises a mixed-race group of fellow bus passengers, some rowdy denizens of Memphis, as well as the choir that smarmy TV preacher (David Caldwell) uses on his show. (They do their thing with an invigorating gospel tune, “Raise Me Up.”)
There are more conversational, intimate songs and dialogue, as the adult Violet connects with flirtatious Monty (jet-fueled Casey Raiha), and more deeply with his black fellow soldier, Flick (Jesse Smith). These relationships lightly add some racial and political awareness: The time is 1964, during the push for civil rights in the South, and the step-up of America’s military involvement in Vietnam.
ArtsWest treats “Violet” with obvious care here, and the utmost sincerity. Smith doesn’t have the powerhouse voice to go full-throttle on another gospel-fired uplift tune, “Let It Sing,” but he radiates the intelligent compassion that attracts Wagner’s potently sung Violet, whose dismissive scowl turns into a radiant smile in snatched moments of joy. The roof-raising soprano Marlette Buchanan is another vocal standout, in the blues and gospel realm. And all the choral numbers are well-meshed.
The show never bores, and many have found “Violet” moving. But in the end, the soulful-black-man-rescues-troubled-white-woman scenario arc struck me as trite, and dated. (See: the Sidney Poitier film “A Patch of Blue.”)
As accomplished as “Violet” is, its search for inner beauty doesn’t go much farther than skin-deep.