Musical theater is all about keeping emotion aloft. In Violet, plot and character are incidental to a show that pares the story down to the bond formed between a young woman struggling with shame and two good-hearted traveling soldiers. The theme is accepting yourself as you are, and the title character shares pure feelings as she learns to believe in herself.
It's 1964 in the segregated South. Violet leaves her isolated home in the mountains of North Carolina to take a bus trip to Tulsa, Okla., in hopes that a faith healer will remove her facial scar. She was disfigured in a childhood accident when her father's axe struck her as he was splitting wood.
The book and lyrics by Brian Crawley are based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim," a short story by Doris Betts. The musical debuted off-Broadway in 1997 and won a New York Drama Critics' Circle award. It's recently been revived and is currently running on Broadway.
Crawley seems to be aiming at the nearly universal trouble women have in accepting their appearance, but making Violet foolish enough to crave a televangelist's miracle trivializes the problem. Still, there are some nice parallels between Violet and the African American soldier she meets, both of whom are judged by their exteriors.
In the production at the Skinner Barn, director Nick Corley stages the action with seating on three sides and a five-piece band visible behind the playing space. Using a single small platform and a few chairs, Corley leaves most of the scenic details to our imagination. The vague allusions to place focus all attention on the performers.
The script has an amorphous quality, as well. Crawley puts a younger version of the main character alongside the adult she'll become. It allows him to show Violet's memories and state of mind, a convention that becomes clear during two poker games that play out simultaneously: young Vi learning from her no-nonsense dad and adult Violet astounding two soldiers, Flick and Monty, with her prowess.
Both soldiers will end up falling for her, scar and all. The triangle isn't especially tense, and romance is almost as easy to obtain as a bus ticket. But before Violet can give in to it, she has to forget the past and believe in herself, two actions difficult to dramatize but easy to sing about.
The band includes music director Jono Mainelli on keyboards and versatile Teddy Weber on guitar, banjo and steel slide guitar. Mainelli's arrangements give all five musicians a chance to stretch and shine through a variety of musical idioms.
Jeanine Tesori's music lacks hummable tunes, but she does create a nice range of musical textures. Several numbers have the soaring, emotional drive essential to musicals, while others quote gospel, dance hall and country music. Within the framework of musical comedy, Tesori nicely captures that turn-the-radio-dial feeling of traveling across the country.
The standout singer in this production is Stephane Duret as Flick. In his solo "Let It Sing," he rises above the nonsense of the lyrics to express the show's be-true-to-yourself philosophy with real uplift and joy. Duret is a vocal powerhouse, but he's also adept at filling in harmonies and creating the subtle give and take needed for the trios with Violet and Monty. And he can turn on a dime as an actor, switching between comic bluster and romantic hesitation.
Cotton Wright plays Violet with steady attention to the character's sense of suffering. It's what the story calls for, but it's inherently less than exciting. Her best moments are during her own fantasies. When Violet describes her hopes for physical beauty to Monty and Flick in "All to Pieces," she eagerly points to magazine pictures of movie stars and relishes imagining her transformation. And her scene with the Preacher goes beyond gospel cliché to the essence of longing.
As Young Vi, 14-year-old Victoria Fearn is impressive. She dances nimbly to embody Violet's flashbacks and uses her arresting vocal talent in three strong duets. Justin Rowe captures Monty's ease and good humor and sings with sweet sincerity.
Peter Boynton handles the dual roles of Violet's father and the Preacher. He's especially affecting in the father's apologetic solo to Violet. Corley stages the song with crystal-clear simplicity — just two people face to face — and Boynton sings with unflinching directness.
The cast is filled out with able performers who populate Violet's journey. Ann Harvey exudes bonhomie as a bus passenger and contributes some sultry singing as part of Memphis' nightlife. Sydney McEwen belts out a mighty gospel solo but is primarily occupied with background roles. Clarise Fearn takes a turn as a radio singer, then likewise retreats. Crawley's odd choice to hand off some feature singing to noncharacters is either the height of egalitarianism or an admission that there just isn't much story to advance.
With its dark-brown, weathered beams, the Skinner Barn is a charming place for theater, but it does pose some acoustical challenges. The live band can only soften its instruments so much, and the microphones on the performers can't pick up all the nuances of the singers. The result is a truncated range of volume, without the loud-to-soft contrasts that can give show tunes dramatic power. Worse, some listeners are likely to miss lyrics and dialogue altogether from time to time.
The first thing we learn about Violet is that she lacks self-confidence. It's not the easiest way to launch a character, even if it's a central human dilemma. To make Violet interest us, Crawley cuts straight to musical conventions and gives her a rip-roaring opening number, "On My Way." Crawley assigns his heroine all the spunk necessary to take a big, obviously life-changing journey, even though her central problem is supposed to be shame and self-doubt. Strictly speaking, Violet's ability to get on the bus would seem to constitute her cure. But musicals encourage us to suspend petty analysis, and this one is a pleasant entertainment.