I remember the first time I saw Shrek: the Musical back in 2010. My expectations were low, having tired of the concept of putting cartoons on stage. Then the music started, and within a week I had taken another trip to the Cadillac Palace to see Shrek again. The songs (“I Know It’s Today,” “Who I’d Be,” “The Ballad Farquaad,” to name a few) were just that good.
Yet, I never made an important connection between many of my all-time favorite musicals: composer Jeanine Tesori. Paging through the program of Griffin Theater’s production of Violet, I discovered that the composer for this small musical, which I had never heard of despite a 2014 revival on Broadway starring Sutton Foster, had also written the music for Caroline, or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek, and Fun Home. In fact, Tesori is one of a small number of women to earn a Tony for Best Original Score (along with Lisa Kron for Fun Home).
Like the other musicals on Tesori’s list (particularly Caroline, or Change and Fun Home), Violet features a female protagonist struggling to overcome the social constrictions of her time period. Based on the story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, Violet is about the struggle of an isolated young woman from rural North Carolina as she travels by bus to Oklahoma to see a celebrity preacher. Violet (Nicole Laurenzi), who grew up without a mother, sustained a facial injury when the blade of her father’s ax separated from the handle when he was chopping wood near Violet. She was left so disfigured that she became a mockery among her classmates. Violet holds an unshakable belief that this preacher can heal her scars.
Griffin Theater’s revival put a small stage and a cast of 11 to good use in this fascinating character study (which was also the inspiration for an Oscar-winning short film in 1981). No makeup is used to create Violet’s facial scar—although the scar is noted by many characters throughout the show—which emphasizes that the prominence Violet places on this feature might be inconsistent with what others see. It also serves as symbol for Violet’s many emotional scars. Two particularly notable flashbacks include Violet accusing her now-deceased father of intentionally deforming her to keep her from leaving him and Violet’s choice to lose her virginity to a boy who admitted approaching her because of a bet with his friends.
With 26 musical numbers packed into a 100 minutes, Violet takes the form of a blue-grass operetta rather than a sprawling musical. Director Scott Weinstein gets spectacular results from his minimal staging, which consists mostly of a bare wood stage with a raised platform in back. In a later scene when Violet arrives at the preacher’s church, she is met by a choir of four wearing faded robes. One can imagine a production with a much larger cast wearing the robes to add more razzle-dazzle to their gospel numbers, but Weinstein’s direction creates an appropriate visual representation of the sham behind the preacher’s entire enterprise.
Every member of the cast is an able singer adding depth to Tesori’s country-music score with lyrics from Brian Crawley. In addition to Laurenzi, who sings in most of the numbers, Anthony Kayer is excellent as the dismissive but not particularly evil preacher, and Stephen Allen and Will Lidke are intriguing as Flick and Monty, two soldiers who befriend Violet and react differently to Violet’s difficult circumstances. Maya Lou Hlava puts in a strong performance as Young Violet following another good performance as a lead in Writer’s Theater’s Trevor: the Musical.
While arguably the least well known of Tesori’s musicals, Violet is an exceptional work that lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Check out this spot of “Water in the Well” for a small sampling of what Violet has to offer (but fair warning: it might leave you longing for more musicals with the infectious rhythms of blue grass music).