It is hard to argue with the success of "Violet." Despite a weak script and a tiring group of songs, this hit-the-road-and-discover-yourself musical has managed to resonate with both audiences and critics ever since its original Off-Broadway premiere in 1997. The 2014 Broadway revival gained four Tony Award nominations -- most notably for its lead actress, Sutton Foster. Now, Blackfriars Theatre hosts Rochester's premiere of the vibrant and kitschy musical, running through May 17.
In "Violet," the year is 1964 and a woman named Violet Karl (Kristen Mellema) boards a Greyhound bus. She's leaving North Carolina for Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a plan to find a miracle working televangelist who, she believes, can heal the scar on her face. Like bags on a bus, she is accompanied by her bittersweet memories. She was 14 years old (a younger Violet is played by Chloe Phelps) and her amiable-yet-stern farmer father (Ken Harrington) wasn't careful enough with his axe. The memories weave throughout the narrative, often mirroring Violet's current journey to Tulsa.
As she settles into her seat, Violet meets a ragtag group of riders -- grandmothers, salesmen, and soldiers -- everyone, humming to the same beat, trying to find themselves as they step out into the big world. Most notably, Violet meets Flick (Lorenzo Shawn Parnell) and Monty (Jimmy Boorum), two young men in the Army on their way to Fort Smith, Arkansas. The three passengers strike up a friendship and, when on a pit stop in Memphis, paint the town. It's during this stay where Violet begins to explore who she is in a deeper and more profound way. She's not just a gullible good-ol' girl, but strong and compassionate, someone who can relate to other outsiders and -- despite her own self-delusions -- speaks truth.
For musical lovers, "Violet" delivers a plentiful set of toe-tapping tunes. There's nothing inventive here, but the basics are covered: overlapping melodies, fun harmonies, and rousing key changes. By the end, many of these songs blend together and stretch scenes to unnecessary lengths, but the actors do their jobs well and keep it entertaining. Occasionally, the sundry level of talent adds an unbalanced texture to an already disorienting story; however, Lorenzo Shawn Parnell and the young Chloe Phelps both deliver knock-out vocal performances. The house band, conducted by Andy Pratt, provides a steady 1960's beat with a fun aura. Pratt's band remains on-point and impressive throughout, distracting only when the occasional volume problem overpowers dialogue and lyrics.
But missing lyrics in "Violet" often comes as a relief. Many lines are forgettable and roll-your-eyes cheesy. "I'll find out where this highway takes me / You know I got to travel on / Left my troubles all behind me / Back there when I climbed on board." In these moments, it's hard not to see "Violet" as a unkind mixture of a 1990's Disney cartoon movie and a Lifetime Original TV special: upbeat positivity sung by beautiful people with hard pasts -- good folk destined to be let down by this hard, unforgiving world.
The plot doesn't help. It becomes apparent -- as Violet, Flick, and Monty's relationship develops from budding friendship to love triangle -- that Violet never needed her face to be healed in order to self-actualize. What Violet really needed was a boyfriend. It is this sort of "problematic woman rescued by a man" storyline that makes the story to "Violet" feel both awkward and dated.
The production marks the end of a 35-year career for John Haldoupis at Blackfriars Theatre. With ties to the original Off-Broadway production, "Violet" became something of a passion project for Haldoupis. The concept, itself, makes a fitting exit: people moving on, down the road, discovering their next chapter. As both director and artistic director of this production, Haldoupis built an impressive set that carries with it the significance of his final bow. It's impressive. The background features a barn wall, or wooden fence, that also acts as a backdrop screen or giant painting. Seamlessly, the set transforms from bus stop to revival church to dive bar. It's the type of ingenuity -- and careful attention to detail -- that makes Haldoupis's productions so fun to watch.
The set is worth the price of admission alone; however, if you're looking for a more compelling and less dated story, "Violet" may be a little tough to sit through.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.