Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Violet's Journey to Self-Discovery

Violet: The Musical

Juliana Lustenader and Jack O'Reilly photo: Ben Krantz

Music by Jeanine Tesori  

Book & Lyrics by Brian Crawley

Direction by Dyan McBride
Movement by Matthew McCoy
Musical Direction by Jon Gallo 

February 16 - March 17, 2019
Thursdays through Sundays

Bay Area Musicals 
Alcazar Theater
650 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Violet is a humble but heartfelt musical about a young woman who triumphs over physical and psychic scars as she journeys toward personal discovery. The story is elevated by Jeanine Tesori’s distinctly American and original music that pulls from country roots, Memphis blues, R&B and even gospel, with Brian Crawley’s lyrics widening the voice and meaning. With superb direction by Dyan McBride, choreography by Matthew McCoy and versatile conducting by Jon Gallo, Violet makes it very hard indeed to sit still.

Tanika Baptiste, April Deutschle, and Elizabeth Jones  photo: Ben Krantz

The time is 1964, when Vietnam was barely in the news, racial slurs seeped into everyday conversations, and traditional roles were shifting.

The 13-year-old Violet (“Vi"), played with a wonderful aplomb by Miranda Long, is an inquisitive and boisterous child until a horrible accident involving an ax disfigures her face and shakes her self-confidence, but not her resilience. Vi closely mirrors the adult Violet, played by Juliana Lustenader, who has developed a hard shell to withstand the pain of not being looked at. With no room for self pity, she aims to achieve her dream of looking beautiful.

Miranda Long and Clay David photo: Ben Krantz

Finally old enough to act for herself, Violet, clutching her dead mother’s well-used and heavily annotated catechism, boards a Greyhound bus in North Carolina to journey to Tulsa to meet the televangelist she believes will heal her face and make her beautiful with ”Elke Sommer's hair / With Judy Garland's pretty chin / With Grace Kelly's little nose / With Rita Hayworth's skin / But Ava Gardner for the eyebrows / Bergman cheekbones under Gypsy eyes..."

Violet is resilient and shrewd, having learned early from her father (Eric Neiman) how to play poker, a life lesson for holding, folding and bluffing that serves her well. Neiman paints a loving and realistic father in “Luck of the Draw”:
Some say things happen by design
By demand, decree, or law
I say most things fall in line
By the luck of the draw

Lustenader and Long’s voices are rich with yearning and spirit, and we want to both encourage and protect Violet on her journey.

The Greyhound bus is a rolling box of humanity, with all sorts of characters coming aboard  singing “On My Way." The staging of a bumpy bus ride is fun, and you want to bounce along with the quirky driver (Clay David). Violet meets two fresh Army recruits on their way to basic training, the African-American Flick (Jon-David Randle) and the hunky but dumb flirt Monty (Jack O’Reilly), and she literally wins them over by beating them at poker. She shows no fear as she imagines the possibility of being loved, wanted, and most of all, looked at.

Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Danielle Philapil, Tanika Baptiste, Jon-David Randle, Juliana Lustenader, and Jourdán Olivier-Verdé 

What makes Violet so enjoyable is the journey with music, which reveals so much about a place and the people who live there.  For example, the blues fill the air on Beale Street as the lonely hotel hooker (Shay Oglesby-Smith) sings “Anyone Would Do.”

Juliana Lustenader, Kim Larsen, Jon-David Randle, and Jack O'Reilly photo: Ben Krantz

In “Let It Sing,” Jon-David Randle as Flick puts his heart into his understanding of Violet’s aspiration to be heard and seen:

You’ve got to give yourself a reason to rejoice
Cause the music you make counts for everything
Now every living soul has got a voice
You’ve got to give it room
And let it sing

Clay David and Cast photo: Ben Krantz

Violet  finally reaches Tulsa, impatient to meet the preacher and be cured. In “Raise Me Up,” with Clay David’s over-the-top, high octane preaching, the ensemble’s glorious gospel singing, and Lula’s (Tanika Baptiste) soulful solo, I almost jumped up from my seat to be one of the saved.

The meticulous attention paid to period detail is a delight. The rack full of mid-1960s magazines, the clunky 60’s TV studio camera, the crisp suits and dresses of the women on the bus, and the sultry sequins of the Beale street women all contribute to the mood. Kudos to scenic designer Matthew McCoy, costume designer Brooke Jennings, and properties designer Clay David.

The only drawbacks for me were inconsistent miking that muffled some lyrics and the horizontal backdrop slats that blocked some of the action.

Despite the supercharged music, the story line of Violet is not that compelling or convincing (for example, why does Violet choose to be with one person and not another?) It probably doesn’t matter anyway, because we know for sure that Violet is finally “on her way.”

Violet: The Musical

Juliana Lustenader, Violet
Jon-David Randle, Flick
Jack O'Reilly, Monty
Miranda Long, Young Vi
Eric Neiman, Father
Shay Oglesby-Smith, Old Lady/2nd Hotel Hooker (Lonely Stranger)/Choir
Clay David, Preacher/Passenger/Radio Singer/Bus Driver 1
Tucker Gold, Virgil/Billy Dean/Passenger/Bus Driver 3/Radio Trio
Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Music Hall Singer/Passenger/Choir
Kim Larsen, Leroy/Radio Trio/Waiter/Bus Driver 4/Passenger/Choir
Tanika Baptiste, Lula Buffington/Almeta (Landlady)/Passenger
April Deutschle, Passenger/Choir/Music Hall Dancer (Lonely Stranger)
Jourdán Olivier-Verdé, Passenger/Choir/Bus Driver 2/Radio Trio/Music Hall Dancer (Lonely Stranger)
Elizabeth Jones, Passenger/Choir/2nd Hotel Hooker, Music Hall Dancer (Lonely Stranger)
Danielle Philapil, Passenger/Choir/1st Hotel Hooker (Anyone Would Do), Music Hall Dancer (Lonely Stranger)

Dyan McBride, Director
Matthew McCoy, Choreographer/Set Designer
Jon Gallo, Musical Director
Genevieve Pabon, Stage Manager
Frank Cardinal, Asst. Stage Manager
Isaac Traister, Asst. Stage Manager
Brooke Jennings, Costume Designer
Eric Johnson, Lighting Designer
Anton Hedman, Sound Designer
Clay David, Prop Designer
Jackie Dennis, Wig Designer
Taylor Gonzalez, Sound Board Op
Stewart Lyle, Technical Director
Cat Knight, Production Manager

Corey Johnson, Violin
Jackie Dennis, Cello
Jonathan Salazar, Guitar
Kyle Wong, Bass
Dominic Moisant, Drums
Jon Gallo, Keyboard/Conductor

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