What a coup for SpeakEasy Stage. Director Paul Daigneault, who brought the Off Broadway version of VIOLET to Boston back in 2000, has found a way to make the current production soar even higher. (The musical’s creators had been reconfiguring it over the years and in 2014 VIOLET played Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award in the Best Musical Revival category.) The new version is now at the BCA through Feb. 6th. SpeakEasy’s production features a real gospel choir for the (religious) “revival” where Violet implores a charismatic televangelist to heal her of her scars. In fact eleven local choirs were recruited so that each performance has a different chorus to make a joyful noise. And do they ever!
VIOLET is billed as a story of hope and renewal, mainly because Violet finds strength as she journeys from her small rural home in North Carolina to the big city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And she finds someone to love her despite a disfigured face. The Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley songs are catchy, uplifting and often, delightfully funny. We meet young Violet (the spunky Audree Hedequist) and there’s a grown up Violet (a fiery Alison McCartan) often together when memory and the present collide. Daigneault’s cast is perfection, from Tyla Collier’s star turn as a music hall singer to Carolyn Saxon’s show stopping church soloist to Kathy St. George’s hilarious turns as a gossipy old lady one second and a drugged out, liquored up hooker the very next second!
John F. King cuts quite a swath as the bombastic faith healer who only ministers to the needy when the cameras are on. He’s callous at first but King gives him a sympathetic streak when he turns Violet down but ultimately lifts her up with some sage advice. Nile Scott Hawver, too, impresses as the headstrong white soldier only interested in a one-night stand, until he undergoes a conversion—but it’s Dan Belnavis who gives a powerhouse performance as the Black soldier who accepts Violet for what’s beneath her scars. As Fats Waller famously wrote about prejudice, “I’m white on the inside but that don’t help my case.” Belnavis’ sergeant has experienced his share of rejection, as Waller’s Black and Blue says “for what is on [his] face.”
It seems to me that the musical attempts to make the case that he and Violet are an ideal fit because both are “damaged.” For me, that’s what disturbing about the story. I can accept that both are hurting. Women are still judged by their face (value) and African-Americans, Lord knows, are targeted because of the color of their skin, but skin color is not a deformity. I’m afraid I think it’s a false equivalency.
So see VIOLET for the stirring performances, for Matthew Stern’s fine music direction, for potent songs like Belnavis’ remarkable “Let It Sing” or the choir’s rousing “Raise Me Up.” Then you be the judge about the subliminal (or not) message in VIOLET.