Where: Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre, Upstairs Mainstage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through Jan. 13, 2018
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Griffin Theatre Company is opening its 30th anniversary season with a stirring version of “Violet” on The Den’s intimate Upstairs Mainstage. Based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, the 1994 musical with a book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori (who went on to acclaim with “Fun Home” and “Caroline, or Change”) was revived on Broadway in 2014 and tells a time-worn tale, but this production directed by Scott Weinstein makes it feel fresh.
The main reason is the emotionally vibrant performance by Nicole Laurenzi as the vulnerable yet resilient and determined title character, a young woman from a mountain farm in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, who as a 12 year old suffered a horrible accident that disfigured her face. We first see Violet, before the play even starts, sitting on a bench at the bus station with her battered suitcase and soon learn that she’s saved all her money to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the belief that a televangelist will heal her.
The time is September 1964, and among the people she meets on the bus are two soldiers, Monty (Will Lidke), a cocky white corporal, and Flick (Stephen Allen), a more reflective black sergeant, who are bound for Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then potentially for Vietnam. Their initial reactions to her appearance soon give way to an appreciation of her personality, and as they compete for her attention, her prickly interactions with them shape her real journey: the spiritual transformation as she comes to understand that her inner beauty is what counts.
In a sense, the audience sees that inner beauty from the start, because Violet is portrayed without the scar she thinks defines her and prevents her from ever finding love. The only indications of her condition are the way others ranging from bus drivers to a kindly but irritating Old Lady (Sarah Hayes) stare, recoil, or comment.
Alternating with the realities of Violet’s trip, which include an overnight stay in Memphis and taste of Beale Street night life with the soldiers and a futile plea for the tv Preacher’s (Anthony Kayer, convincing as a nasty hustler) help at a rehearsal in Tulsa, are her fantasies and flashbacks, mostly to her life (Maya Lou Hlava is lovely as Young Violet) with her stern widowed Father (Matt W. Miles) in the time shortly before and after her accident.
Much of the 105-minute one act is sung through, and Tesori’s lush score incorporates blues, gospel, pop rock, folk, and country music as well as Broadway styles. While there are a fair number of inspirational anthems like “Raise Me Up,” “Let It Sing,” and “Bring Me to Light,” there are also some very clever songs and even a couple of moving ones. “Luck of the Draw,” for example, cannily juxtaposes the memory of Young Violet learning how to play poker from her Father with grown-up Violet asking to join the soldiers’ game and surprising them with her skill. Her Father’s guilt-ridden lament after the accident, “That’s What I Could Do,” is among the most gut-wrenching.
The entire ensemble gives the show its all, and one result is that some of the acting and singing is just too big and loud for the small space. A little more attention to subtlety by music director John Cockerill might prevent so many songs from being belted out at full throttle.
The other problem I had was that some specifics of the story were hard to follow. For example, we find out that Violet’s scar was caused by an accident with an ax, but the details of her Father’s involvement aren’t entirely clear here. Also, the evening opens with both Violets singing “Water in the Well,” an old folk song that relates to her mother, but I can’t figure out how. And Violet’s fluctuating feelings for Flick, and his for her, don’t always make sense, though the parallels being drawn between her scar and his skin color are obvious, as is her awkwardness on meeting her first black person.
On the plus side, Lauren Nigri’s rustic scenic design is ingenious, with pull-outs and a few chairs turning it into a bus, a boardinghouse bedroom, a nightclub, and several other locations with the help of Alexander Ridger’s lighting. Izumi Inaba’s costumes capture the spirit of the period on a budget.
All in all, “Violet” gets Griffin’s thirtieth year off to a good start.