Courtesy of The Croswell Opera House
Heading into The Croswell’s production of the Tony award nominated musical “Violet,” I must admit how new the material was to me. Attempting to head into this emotionally devastating piece of theatre was an interesting exercise for myself and, I presume, audiences who fall in the same boat as me. But The Croswell and director Jen Letherer turn in the big effects of flashy musicals (no disrespect to “The Music Man” - a wonderful show in a different genre) for a more in depth study of the new production's titular role to showcase the value of emotional intimacy. Driven by a skillful performance from Jamie Lynn Buechele, “Violet” is a delicate musical, and Letherer and company have a spirited, though, sensitive production on their hands and do the lyrics and music of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawly's blue-collar, bluegrass, 1997 gospel-flavored production justice.
A genuinely uplifting journey, “Violet” - recently revived on Broadway with Sutton Foster in the titular role - is set in September 1964 in the American South, and The Croswell has assembled a textbook crew to transport us to what seems like alternate reality. Leo Babcock’s single-set and all purpose design serves as a bus station, diner, gas station, hotel, Beale Street, and a church. Meanwhile, music director Leah Fox is perched onstage with the full force of Adrian’s finest in front of her. While some of Tesori’s scores have become synonymous with spectacle like “Shrek” or "Thoroughly Modern Millie"- “Violet” is closer in spirit to the core of her work on “Fun Home,” and Fox is the perfect candidate to steer this ship musically.
Anyway, it doesn’t take much for the audience to use their imaginations to help travel between scenery. For instance, all we need in the opening sequence is projections (nice work here by Crosby Slupe) and bus seats nailed to a rolling platform to envision a slew of Greyhound buses that take Violet (Buechele) from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina through Nashville, onto Memphis, and eventually Tulsa, Oklahoma. Additionally, it’s in the minds of the audience to picture the deep scar down one side of her face from an accident involving a flying axe blade while her father (D. Ward Ensign - showing a real change from his usual, solid, comedic roles) was chopping wood when she was only 13.
Raised by her father after the unfortunate passing of her mother, Violet now 25 and orphaned is heading to Tulsa to see the supposed miracle working preacher (Karl Kasischke - hamming it up) whom she believes will heal her scar and make her whole again. Of course, there are limits to what can be accomplished in these types of scenarios - something Violet may have to learn the hard way.
“Violet” - based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” - which, a quick Google search will tell you, has the air of a fairytale rooted in a harsh reality, seems almost as fitting a description one could bestow upon this production. The two act structure suits “Violet” well, and while stunning scores are what gets audiences in the seats these days, the dramatic scenes here are equally outstanding. And that’s a testament to this hip cast who carry this tragedy-ridden show through to the final number (it helps to have well rounded performers who can carry the weight of the production vocally and physically). Except, one of the greatest achievements of Letherer’s production is how seamless she makes the transitions feel, who, along with an exceptional Croswell crew, do a fantastic job interweaving the past, present, and fantasy; all the more important as the production often cuts back to Violet’s childhood.
As the scenes intertwine past and present, the tremendously talented Lillian Buck plays Violet as a 13-year-old with strength of character and not one sliver of cuteness. All of her movements seem organic and her stage presence rivals some of that of her co-stars. The song “Luck of The Draw” is a giddy highlight, as Young Violet is taught the basic principles of math through poker. The song, while not near the marquee highlights of something like “Lay Down Your Head,” manages to stand out because Ensign and Buck have remarkable flow and chemistry. The two provide a needed investment for the audience to help translate the harrowing pain that comes when her father disfigures her for life.
However, the dramatic roots of all of this reverts back to Violet on the road, during which she strikes up a friendship with two strapping soldiers, the egotistical Monty (Brendan Coulter), and his African-American buddy Flick (Drew Nauden). Of course, this being the South during the reign of the civil-rights era when colored folk stepping foot into "white" establishments was considered criminal, Nauden’s nuanced performance as Flick beautifully compliments and understands Violet’s feelings of being an outsider. Both of these fellas are drawn to her, but it's obvious only one can show her the path to acceptance. Again, all three of these characters possess uncanny chemistry, and I immediately had to rummage through my program as soon as Nauden started “Let It Sing” - because I was transfixed by his vocal presence. The same goes for Coulter who, combined with Nauden, give The Croswell stage some spark. Both are bonafide rock stars.
Costume designer Pam Krage deserves major credit for capturing the tone and spirit of the 1960's through her subtle, but effective work. Additionally, sound designer Chris Goosman and his crew get the gold star as the acoustics and levels here were all on point (bonus points for not having any static feedback!) allowing Jamie Buechele all the reign and freedom to hit those high notes without having to hold back. I’d also wager the sound crew had their work cut out from them during the Gospel song “Raise Me Up” and I say that because soloist Taieshia Tindall absolutely blows the roof off The Croswell alongside her ensemble co-stars.
Still, there were some glaring blemishes throughout the production that I did struggle to understand. For instance, there’s a scene towards the end act of act one inside a nightclub in Memphis which features a terrific ballad called “Lonely Stranger” sung here by Sarah Nowak Rolko. Though I give all the credit to Nowak (no question the Croswell regular sings the song beautifully) I couldn’t help but feel her character wasn’t the correct ethnicity. Considering the time, and how dangerous its supposed to be for Violet to enter such a place, some of the emotional impact is lost. Likewise for the inclusion of some awkward dance numbers in more down-to-earth tunes like “M&Ms.” Dom Glover’s choreography is staged with great precision, but again I was taken out of certain songs by what felt like unnecessary additions.
Yet once those few rocky patches are through, it leaves Buechele to command this beautiful ensemble, in which the actress provides a riveting center without the need to upstage or push her emotions. There are numerous and noteworthy songs along the way, from the cheerful “On My Way” which kicks off the show to Buechele’s sorrowful lullaby, “Lay Down Your Head;” and there’s “Who’ll Be The One (If Not Me),” sung by a trio of cowboys.
This all swooning to a powerful climax that had patrons on their feet after the opening night performance, cementing “Violet” as one of the more narratively ambitious musicals The Croswell has produced for its audiences. With a cast and crew as dedicated as they are here, it’s hard not to get choked up or bask in the range of what that show’s message is trying to conjure. We can’t let our scars define our character, and, most importantly, we have to find the courage to stand up when we get knocked down.
IF YOU GO:
The Croswell's production of "Violet" continues through Sunday July 21st. To purchase tickets or view showtimes, head to Croswell.org