Sunday, December 6, 2015
Blue Saint Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co presents, VIOLET. Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley. At the Hayes Theatre, Grennknowe Ave, Potts Point. 27 November - 20 December, 2015.
VIOLET is a Musical based on a short story, The Ugliest Pilgrim, by Doris Betts. It first appeared Off-Broadway in 1997, but was produced on Broadway in 2014. The Book and Lyrics are by Brian Crawley. The Music is by Jeanine Tesori. Some of Ms Tesori's other work includes: THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (2000), CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (2004), SHREK THE MUSICAL (2008) and FUN HOME (2015), it winning 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this year.
Set across the landscape of the 1960's American South, a young woman leaves her home town, Spruce Pine, North Carolina, on a bus, to get to a Faith Healer - preacher - in Tulsa Oklahoma. As a child she has had an accident caused by her father, resulting in an axe-head scar to her face that causes all who see it, to wince. She boards this bus full of bible hope that her physical image will be healed and reflect the beauty of the movie stars and celebrities of her magazine reading. On this 'pilgrimage' she meets up with a number of people - including two soldiers, one white, one black - and has a journey, some 'adventures', that helps her realise that it is not just the outside-look that makes a person. I bet you're saying 'I know this story' - Beauty and a Beast! - well, I promise you, this story has some refined details that will keep you hooked with its twists and turns.
This production of VIOLET, Directed by Mitchell Butel, Musical Direction by Lucy Bermingham is a crack-a-jack ride of the first order. The Book creates a number of characters that are not your cookie-cutter musical norm, they are a relatively complex set of people with contradictions to catch you unawares - just when you've 'pegged' the character as a type you recognise, they do something to make you reconnoitre again.
There are two Violets, the young girl and the grown woman, for the father appears and is a 'ghost' of important substance to them both, and in their story-time-shifts, from the past to the present, the narrative is always propelled forward without a hint of sentimentality. The Dramatic structuring is flawless. The soldiers, Flick, an African American, and Monty, a white, lower officer, hoping to get to Vietnam as a Green Beret, each make a play for Violet on this long bus journey and in a boarding house in Memphis. There are racial tensions of the period bubbling throughout the story and religious/show business chicanery to be exposed. The Book and the Lyrics are a masterclass of seamless storytelling
The musical score by Ms Tesori integrates a number of styles in some 20 songs and 3 reprises, from bluegrass, country and western, soul and gospel, and their placement in the show (an hour and three quarters, without interval) never flags and is apt. There are eleven performers and all of them are given individual opportunities to shine - the Direction by Mr Butel of the actors is detailed, and the Staging of the action, too, is wonderfully managed, seamless-'slick', never ever static, with choreography, by Amy Campbell, that explodes with disciplined energy and a raucous joy - thrilling, electrifying in this small space at the Hayes, infecting the audience to get-on-board and help raise the roof further with a more than ordinary enthusiastic reception, applause. Ms Bermingham manages her orchestra of six with a fabulous sound, assisted with a great Sound Design by Jeremy Silver.
All of this is simply presented in a very practical and attractive Set Design by Simon Greer, opening the small space for action with a framing metaphoric back-drop of the road that the bus must take these people down, situating the many locations with imaginative ease. Props are by Cornelia Cassimatis and are so 'right-on' in their simple detailing for the worlds of the show. It is lit with another flexible and brilliant Design by Ross Graham (AN INDEX OF METALS) - he's 'smoking' at the moment! The period Costumes by Lucetta Stapelton are glorious in their character clarities and in the mastering of quick changes for the very busy team of actors, not forgetting the spectacular wigs by Lauren Proietti that simply 'crown' the affect.
All eleven actors of this remarkable ensemble (who are these people, why haven't I seen them before?) should be noted: Damien Bermingham (Father), Barry Conrad (Flick), Steve Danielson (Monty), Sam Dodemaide (Violet), Katie Elle Reeve (Music Hall Singer), Linden Furnell (Leroy), Ryan Gonzalez (Virgil), Dash Kruck (Preacher), Genevieve Lemon (Mabel/Alice), Elenoa Rokobaro (Lula/Almeta) and Luisa Scrofani (Young Violet). This is, I repeat, a dynamite ensemble.
Ms Dodemaide tackles the complex and unhappy Violet with a depth of uncompromising truthfulness and commitment to a character who travels from a cynical bitterness to a self-revelation of acceptance, with a fluidity and capability, courage, that reveals the dramatics, both in her book responsibilities and with her lyric and musical singing, powerfully. Watch and listen to Ms Dodemaide as she negotiates the arc of Violet's journey through the songs, especially her solos: "Surprised", "Lay Down Your Head", "Look at Me", to the reprise of "Surprised", "Promise Me, Violet" and to the company finale of "Bring Me to Light". One is confronted by Violet, she is a bit more than 'prickly', but one comes to admire her and finally to love her, or, at least, to 'care' for her - this is no normal Musical Theatre heroine. Violet/Ms Dodemaide asks us to understand a deeply wounded psyche in search of a normal peace, on this bus ride from Spruce Pine to Tulsa. The characterisation is supported well by Ms Scrofani, as the young Violet, with no less passion.
Mr Conrad, as Flick, is a handsome find (this is his first stage performance!) with a way with lyrics that will move you deeply -"Let it Sing". Ms Dodemaide and he spark an empathetic chemistry that keeps one hopeful of a happy ending to their characters' 'bumpy' journey, despite the burden of them having to sit in the shadow of their culture's prejudices - he being black and she disfigured. Mr Danielson, as the other sex interest, Monty, strikes a classic pose of macho, white privilege with childish appeal to great affect - "Last Time I Came to Memphis". Mr Bermingham, in a moving creation as the Father persuades us to an emotional back-flip with his beautiful rendition of "That's What I Could Do". While Mr Kruck and Ms Rokobaro burn the space up with their gospel passion - alleluia! - assisted by the Chorus with the infectious "Raise Me Up".
And one cannot, should not forget the amazing Ms Lemon who draws every character she has - character and chorus - with a pencil-fine clarity and a breathtaking sense of timing and wicked observation, besides her utilising well, a singing voice and lyric clarity of ringing character comedy to create a classic dynamic performance to remember. Best because of its outrageous and daring broad refinement. ("Hey", I wonder, "is she a Mamma Rose?" Check out her range on the screen, in THE DRESSMAKER 'filum' - if she has the vocal requirements, I'd cast her, now).
VIOLET is one of those 'little' musicals from the Broadway world, that we often never get to see, and in this production VIOLET is one of the most satisfactory nights I have had in the theatre for a long time - to find a flaw would be difficult. Mr Butel has 'captained' a production that I reckon tops SWEET CHARITY that opened this theatre, a year or so ago, to great acclaim, in all its professionalisms. It scored a tour - so, I reckon should this show. Find the right sized space and it should please many, many people. Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co. make another must see hit in Potts Point.
You will not be disappointed, I promise.
Go, go, go.
N.B. VIOLET is an Equity Approved Co-Op Production and is performed by professional actors/performers. Please note that these brilliant people, this cast, are giving a season of this Musical unwaged. I am so grateful for their passion and skills. They are remarkable.