A stunning production is playing on the stage at Ford’s Theatre as the musical Violet carries on their 2013/2014 season. With music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, this touching and uplifting musical is filled with soul and is a rigorous run of emotions from beginning to end. Directed by Jeff Calhoun with Musical Direction by Jay Crowder, this story of a physically scarred girl on the road to aesthetic redemption will touch your heart in a deep and meaningful fashion. There is a powerful message beneath the scars of humanity, whether they are physical or emotional, and Violet’s story reveals that in a blinding joyous light.
A brilliant approach to a ‘moving musical’ is displayed by Scenic Designer Tobin Ost. Working in conjunction with Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne, Ost creates the vivid effect of keeping the bus in motion. Scenes that take place on the bus traveling from town to town are illuminated in their movements with the constant flow of dim shadows progressing in the background. Rhyne’s projections across the photo-like background intersperse a multitude of locations spread out between the faded print out of a map. These simple yet rich images augment the imaginative setting, transporting the audience all along the route Violet takes in her journey. Ost’s shifting seats contain a versatility that make them purposeful and inventive in the overall outlay of the set, going easily from bus seats to booths in a diner and more.
In a musical where one’s roots play an important part of the story, having the proper dialects in play really helps hone the focus of the show. Dialect Consultant Susanne Sulby plucks out the intricate southern sounds for Violet, her father, and the two soldiers, each distinguished by slight differences in their patterned delivery; all of which sound genuine and slide off the tongue with a 1960’s ease. Sulby encourages the rich identifying accents to infuse the musical numbers as well, keeping a consistency with these well-developed characters.
Director Jeff Calhoun does an exceptional job of working with the simplistic spatial design of the set, maintaining a full feeling and incorporating clever uses of hidden space for moments of flashback. Calhoun executes beautiful cinematic moments where scenes of the past play out in duality next to or sometimes seamlessly wound into the present happening on the stage. The most striking example of this is during “Luck of the Draw” where Young Vi and her Father play poker in a memory in a booth right next to grown up Violet and the soldiers. Calhoun’s vision of blending lines between reality and memory, dreaming and waking is achieved with mesmerizing success.
It is worth mentioning, however, Calhoun’s choice of leaving Violet’s scar to the minds of the audience. Whether or not this is a symbolic representation with intent to let the audience imagine her physical pain, or an attempt to more metaphorically represent her deep emotional scars, this choice is a large pill for the audience to swallow even in the vein of ‘suspension of disbelief.’ While Calhoun’s decision does not ruin the ‘surprise’ of the show, it does detract the attention from Violet’s plight as time is spent attempting to determine whether or not she has a scar that is too faint to be seen, or if there simply is no scar.
Musical Director Jay Crowder inspires sounds of the soul in the ensemble. Particularly the finale, “Bring Me to the Light” is imbued with a heartfelt power that stirs evocative feelings into all listening. Crowder showcases a variety of musical styles in excellence, from holy-rolling upbeat passion in the religiously driven numbers like “Raise Me Up” (featuring a sensational and powerful solo performed by Kellee Knighten Hough) to jazzy underground flare in “Lonely Stranger” (featuring a stunning and wildly belted solo from the talented Raise Me Up). Crowder’s abilities to successfully blend some of the more complex harmonies in this musical is a testament to his musical knowledge, making for a dazzling show that really hits home when as these numbers come fully emotionally charged.
Lauren Williams, who plays Young Vi, is a vivacious and extremely talented performer. She has a a fiery personality that makes the sparks of contention fly between her character and Father (Bobby Smith). Her emotional outbursts are raw and unbridled; a rupture of anger, confusion, and frustration all wound into a series of outcries. Her voice carries like a pure songbird in both the “Opening” and “Look at Me.”
Smith’s portrayal of the clever but emotionally tortured father is superb. His ability to craft compassion into the character while simultaneously burying it beneath a tough paternal exterior is impressive, as is his ability to patter through “Luck of the Draw” with an upbeat style that keeps that number moving. Smith’s voice is moving for his solo “That’s What I Could Do,” a number that tugs vehemently at your heartstrings by the time he finishes it.
The title role of the musical is portrayed with great enthusiasm by Erin Driscoll. Despite grappling with much of the lower range of the score at this performance, Driscoll does an exceptional job of emoting an enormous range of feelings into her singing. The emotional pain inspired by her physically scarred past is palpable, especially in her duet “Look at Me” with Young Vi. Driscoll’s acting is sensational; her ability to maintain the gruff exterior with a deeply wounded inner soul creates a brilliant depth in the character of Violet. Driscoll’s relationships with both Monty (James Gardiner) and Flick (Kevin McAllister) are developed naturally and are a compelling part of her character’s growth.
Gardiner as the charming, albeit clueless, Monty gives an amazing performance in this candid and clever role. Gardiner’s cheesy personality is a streamline to the stereotype of the congenial soldiers of the era and he fits well into the overall character landscape of the plot. His solo “You’re Different” is a stellar rendition of jazzy rhythmic blues with a dynamically soft twist of heartfelt tenderness as the song changes tempo. Gardiner’s spats exchanged with Driscoll add a hint of comedy to the performance as well as serve to enhance their relationship over time.
The show stealer, hands down, is Kevin McAllister in the role of Flick. His phenomenal vocals juxtaposed against his witty but level-headed character makes him a knockout in this show. The level of fulfilling soul he infuses into his solo numbers is truly moving. “Let It Sing” was my favorite number in the piece because of McAllister’s crystal clear voice and his ability to transcend the musical style with his pure emotional expression and his sensational belt. McAllister’s suave yet reserved personality create a dynamic instance in this plain GI that makes the audience want to cheer for him and yearn for his success. His duet with Violet, “Promise Me, Violet (Reprise) is an exuberant display of voices twining together in melodious bliss; a calling of two hearts melding into one union of love. McAllister deserves high accolades for his success in this role.
Ford’s Theatre’s stunning production of Violet will have you keenly examining your own physical and emotional scars and the weight they bare on who you are and how they affect your life. Violet is a truly moving and wondrous experience to be enjoyed by all.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Violet plays through February 23, 2014 at Ford’s Theatre— 511 10th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 347-4833, or purchase them online.