Violet, performed by students from the London School of Musical Theatre at the Bridewell Theatre, London, continues until 23 April.
This British premiere of American composer Jeanine Tesori’s first musical Violet, with lyrics and book by Brian Crawley based on Doris Betts’ short story The Ugliest Pilgrim, does not make easy viewing but is well worth the effort.
Winner of a 1997 New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical, it tells the story of Violet, a girl from a remote Carolina mountain village accidentally disfigured at 13 by an axe wielded by her father, who dreams of a miraculous transformation that will give her “the eyes of Gene Tierney, the legs of Ursula Andress and the nose of Grace Kelly” – the eternal search for external beauty to which all girls were subjected to in the 60s (and still are).
Setting off on a Greyhound bus on the long journey to Tulsa where she hopes her scar will be magicked away by a Billy Graham-style evangelist she’s seen on TV, Violet, now 25, forms unlikely friendships with fellow-travellers who teach her about beauty, love, courage and what it truly means to be an outsider.
Of course, she goes on to discover the phony preacher has no hotline to God either, but before then she has a fling with a white army corporal who uses her before signing up for the Vietnam War, whereupon his black pal, Sergeant ‘Flick’, a much more understanding type, nips in to get her on the rebound.
With the piece set in 1964 around the time of the Civil Rights movement, the scar, which the author does not allow the audience to see but which they have to imagine, could be a metaphor for the race scar on American society or it could represent her personal rage at the cruel trick life has played on her. She even wonders whether her widowed father deliberately disfigured her so she would stay home and look after him.
When Flick says he’d willingly give her his skin if it would mean healing her, she replies scornfully: “What do I want with coloured skin? No offence, but I want people to think I’m pretty.”
Having always been the underdog, Flick feels Violet’s pain, and it is only when she comes round to realising that colour isn’t important and beauty comes from within that she can be freed from self-loathing.
Matt Ryan, returning to direct for the London School of Musical Theatre for a fifth time, immediately places the piece in time context with a billboard montage of many of the film star beauties of the period and gets everything from his well-drilled cast of 15.
There are no weak links, but the voices of Rachel Flynn as Young Vi and Shannon Taiwo as Flick – right on the money with ‘Let It Sing’ and ‘Promise Me, Violet’ – are particularly strong.
Genevieve Kingsford, in the difficult main part, is feisty and appealing as the grown-up Violet, although she could work on getting even more yearning desperation out of her much-damaged character.
Nathan Elcox as Monty, the white soldier who beds Violet and goes off to war, does a terrific job on another good number ‘You’re Different’, he and Taiwo being particularly effective in the early scene which mixes flashback with the present where father Karl teaches the young Vi how to play poker while the older Violet more than holds her own with the card-wise soldiers during the catchy ‘Luck of the Draw’.
In smaller roles, a well-made-up Amelia-Rose Morgan as the Old Lady on the bus, Kris Marc-Joseph as Vi’s father, Alex Crisp’s past-his-sell-by preacher and the striking Danielle Kassarate catch the eye.
The energetic ensemble piece at the dance hall, the gospel choir and the powerful finale, ‘Bring Me the Light’, are superbly choreographed by Sam Spencer-Lane, as is all the business on the bus where the movements of the cast even suggest the passage of miles on the dusty roads from North Carolina through Nashville, Memphis and Arkansas to Oklahoma.
The band of seven, led by MD Jim Henson, has a patchwork quilt of musical genres to mug up on, from ballad to C&W to blues, bluegrass and folk, through to the rousing gospel anthem ‘Raise Me Up’, and come through with flying colours.
Not a great musical but an always interesting, thought-provoking one which demands plenty and gets the full-on treatment it deserves.
A production of Violet has just opened on Broadway – to read our review, click here