Friday, July 11, 2014

Theater Review: Violet

Music by Jeanine Tesori. Libretto by Brian Crawley. 1997/2014 (Off/On Broadway)

Toward the end of Violet there's a big bubbly gospel number in which dancers accompanies the buoyant lyrics. Now this ensemble didn't have long to shine on stage, but they really gave it their all, especially the two ladies up front who let loose a nearly-distracting degree of enthusiasm. While I didn't care for the number, which I've forgotten entirely, I did enjoy and do remember their spirit. That's pretty much how I feel about Violet, the story of plucky girl's bus trip from North Carolina to Tulsa looking for a preacher to heal her scar.

I'll mention first Violet's chiefest success, which is a clever trick of staging the flashbacks of the titular main character at the same time as the unfolding story. This device rescues a story which if told linearly would have started to flag after its first hour. Beyond the energizing effect though, the sharp juxtaposition of these scenes brings some unique insight, as when Violet, fooling around with a fellow passenger during the Memphis layover, remembers her first time with a man. Rather than simply remembering a scene from act one, the presence of everyone on stage at once makes us more strongly identify the past characters and actions with the present ones.

This is a simple trick, but it works. Until the end, anyway, when after reaching the preacher, her father appears onstage in flashback. When she accuses him of intentionally maiming her so that the disfigurement might repel boys and keep her close to him, the father responds that wasn't so and apologizes for the accident. She believes this, which makes her feel so good that she thinks her scar has been healed. So presuming she didn't actually experience communication with the dead or divine, and that her flashback (i.e. the product of her consciousness) couldn't and therefore didn't tell her something which she didn't already know, what happened? What caused her transformation? If it was just a memory, which is the only thing it could have been, why does she believe him now?

Perhaps the awakening came when the preacher said her problem was her character and not her face, which is reasonable, but is that all it took to convince her, some frank advice from a man she just learned is a charlatan? This development is ultimately unsatisfying not because of its origin in the preacher, though, but because Violet is not introspective, or at least because the process of her reflecting on her character is not part of the story. Violet's resolution needed to come not from a logical proposition which she could just accept, but via a developed plot line, such as her relationship with Flick, a soldier traveling with her on the bus, which had been dramatically prepared.

Anyway, when she finds out that Flick, who chose not to sleep with her for what seem to have been moral reasons, or timidity, does indeed love her scar and all, she's happy. Since we don't know what she thought about him not sleeping with her, though, we again don't know what caused her sudden change of feeling. Why is she so enthralled now? She didn't learn anything new about him.

I'll touch but briefly on the music, which is a credit to the performers though not the composer. They played with a lot of gusto, but there's very little of interest in the score except for the variety of genres which is both pleasant and sensible given the changes of locale from stop-to-stop. Unfortunately the start of every number featured a jarring distraction: the disappearance of everyone's thick southern accents as they shifted into perfectly neutral pronunciation for their song. Still, the tunes are attractive and lively enough in the moment to move the show along.

I enjoyed Violet because I was in cheerful company and because the cast and band gave their all, but the experience is of a spirited performance of a somewhat dull show. Violet is pleasant enough to watch but its tunes and plot fade quickly after the curtain falls.

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