The blissful perfection of Street Theatre Company’s ‘Violet’, a musical about a woman’s struggles with scars–both real and perceived–is the irony that it’s one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever seen on the Nashville stage.
With book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori (‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’, ‘Caroline or Change’, ‘Shrek: The Musical’) and based on Doris Betts’ ‘The Ugliest Pilgrim’ from ‘Beast of the Southern Wild and Other Stories’, ‘Violet’ was first mounted off-Broadway in 1997.
For Street Theatre’s production, scenic designer Andy Bleiler’s stripped-down ‘postcard’ set allows the audience to focus on the beauty of the show itself. A large majority of the action takes place during Violet’s bus ride. Director Jason Tucker cleverly employes what can only be called ‘bench-ography’ to not only express the passage of time, but the arrival and departure of stops along the way. By synchronizing the movement of the bus seats in perfect unison, and repositioning them, Tucker assure that the staging doesn’t grow stagnate and in doing so, allows the entire audience a bird’s eye view of the action.
Whether by fate or design, Street Theatre’s current production coincides with the Broadway debut of ‘Violet’ which opened just last week, giving Music City theatre enthusiast the chance to see a local production at the same time Broadway audiences are clamoring for a chance to see the New York production.
Street Theatre’s production also offers Nashville audiences an all-too-rare chance to see the company’s Artistic Director, Cathy Street on stage, rather than behind the scenes. In the lead role of physically and emotionally scarred Violet, Street perfectly presents equal doses of uncertainty and aplomb. The show’s musical numbers, which run the gamut from country to soulful 60s, showcase Street’s soothing vocal tone, simply creating an extension of the depth of Violet’s character.
Touching on everything from racial tension in the south to war, ‘Violet’ is set in the 1960s as the title character travels by bus from her mountain home in North Carolina through Memphis and on to Tulsa, Oklahoma in hopes of being healed of her physical scar by a televangelist (hilariously portrayed by Jordan Ravellette). Ravellette’s Preacher has one of the show’s most memorable lines. ‘Are you on the way or in the way’. It’s uttered almost in passing, but conveys the entirety of the play in one phrase.
Presented in parallel staging throughout the play, the audience gets a glimpse into Violet’s past and the accident that left her scarred. Although she’s the youngest member of the cast, Virginia Richardson, as young Violet, holds her own during some of the show’s most telling scenes.
Also seen mostly in ‘flashback’, if you will, is Scott Stewart as Violet’s Father. A truly versatile actor, Nashville theatre-goers might recall Scott as Edna Turnblad in a local production of ‘Hairspray’ a few years back. In the role of Violet’s Father, he bears the brunt of the blame for her accident, but he also shapes the woman she becomes. Their relationship is beautifully portrayed in Act 1’s ‘Luck of the Draw’ during which the audience sees both Violets engaged in card games, adult Violet with two soldiers she meets on her bus trip, and young Violet being taught the game by her Father.
Along her journey, Violet (Street) meets up with a wide array of fellow journeymen. Key among the travelers are two soldiers. Randy Craft, who was last seen in Nashville as Joseph, he of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Craft channels his more abrupt side as Monty, a cocky soldier who seemingly sees past Violets facial deformity, but only so far as to bed her. Making his debut at Street Theatre is DeVon Buchanan as Flick, an African American soldier who, because of the color of his skin, knows a little something about being treated differently. Both Buchanan and Craft posses pitch-perfect voices and bring passion and life to both the spoken and lyric phrasing of the piece.
On the subject of vocal perfection, Santayana Harris and Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, one of my theatre crushes, bring the house down during two very different numbers. First Harris rocks the house as blues singer Mabel, then Whitcomb-Oliva raises the roof as lead vocalist of a church choir during ‘Raise Me Up’. The two, like most of the members of the cast, also steal scenes throughout the show in various supporting roles, including a pregnant bus passenger and her friend, and later, two young girls trying desperately to catch the eyes of the soldiers. Whitcomb-Oliva also offers a bit of humor to yet another role as proprietor of a blacks-only boarding house who is none too happy about Flick bringing Violet and Monty to stay for the night.
Among the supporting cast, Vicki White is first seen as an elderly woman traveling to spend time with her son and his kids, whom she makes no bones about not liking. She’s the typical Bible-toting, judgmental type anyone who grew up in the South has encountered numerous times. White is later she’s seen as a lounge singer and a chain-smoking woman. Whether playing a sinner on Saturday or a saint on Sunday, White is a joy to watch.
Rounding out the cast is Wesley King, who was last seen in Street Theatre’s ‘Closer Than Ever’; and STC newcomer James Hatem. Between the two, they play everything from Violet’s first suitor to brawling rednecks.
While attending opening night of Street Theatre’s ‘Violet’, I kept thinking of something my Mom use to say to me as a child with what I perceived to be a gnarly scar from a birth injury. She’d frequently remind me that we all have scars, some are just easier to see than others. I can’t stress enough how beautiful Street Theatre’s ‘Violet’ is. It’s truly not to be missed.
Street Theatre Company’s ‘Violet’ continues this weekend with only four shows remaining. On Friday, May 2, there’s an 8 p.m. performance. Saturday, May 3 will feature a 2 p.m. matinee as well as an 8 p.m. show, and the play will close Sunday, May 4 with a final 5 p.m. curtain. CLICK HERE for tickets, or call 6.5.554.7414.
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