Great Score, Cast Bring Violet Home (4 Stars)

‘Violet’ – Written by Brian Crawley; Music & Lyrics by Jeanine Tesori; Directed by Paul Daigneault; Musical Direction by Matt Stern; Choreography by David Connolly; Scenic Design by Eric Levenson; Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound Design by David Remedios. Presented by Speakeasy Stage Company through February 6.

Beauty may only be skin deep, but try telling that to a 12-year old girl that has had her face horribly disfigured by an errant hatchet, courtesy of an accident by her loving father. Trying to maintain a sense of self when people recoil in horror when they see you for the first time is no way for anyone to go through life, so Violet does what any God-fearing 25 year-old in the 1964 deep South would do to heal that scar – climb on a bus, travel halfway across the country and seek out the one man that she knows can help her – a TV preacher.

Speakeasy Stage has mounted that story in ‘Violet’, a production that really puts an emphasis on the 'music' in this engaging musical. An eclectic mix of rock, gospel, soul and country/western tunes that could easily have climbed the charts in their respective genres, ‘Violet’ delivers some soul shakin’ numbers, including a gospel number that could have easily been lifted from the Harlem Gospel Choir's songbook. Adapted from Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” the show debuted Off-Broadway and won a handful of awards (including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Musical) in 1997, and was revived on Broadway in 2014. The show is returning to the Speakeasy stage after being produced in 2000 (and was directed by Paul Daigneault, who also directs this version).

Set mostly in Greyhound bus stations across the South, ‘Violet’ tells two stories – that of the 25 year-old Violet’s quest to heal her scarred face and psyche, and her 12-year old self, whose story is told in flashback. On her journey, she meets two soldiers, Monty, a dashing young ladies man, and Flick, an African-American Army sergeant who is Monty’s superior. The three hit it off, playing cards and busting each other’s chops, as the guys kid her about her dream of being healed by the preacher and she reflexively gives it right back to them. She keeps a tight rein on her emotions (except anger), not surprising for someone who has been mercilessly teased throughout her life, and actually ends up bruising the feelings of the sensitive Flick – which of course opens the door for a special understanding between the two. As the trip goes on, a romantic triangle begins to form, despite Violet’s inability to believe that anyone could really love her.

The backstory with young Violet adds context for her pain, but the primary purpose of this or any musical is to serve up the numbers, and this one’s got plenty of great ones. “Let It Sing” sung by Flick (the terrific Dan Belnavis) starts with the cadence of a military marching drill, before taking flight as the show’s first (of many) uplifting tunes. “Who’ll Be The One (If Not Me)” is a heartbreaking C&W song, and “Lonely Stranger” is a great rocker. But the absolute drop dead showstopper is “Raise Me Up” the gospel number that greets Violet when she finally arrives at the television station where the preacher broadcasts his revival from. In addition to the rest of the cast, director Daigneault has added 8-10 gospel singers from local groups (in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts) – just to add punch to the number – and man does it pay dividends.

Some aspects of the love story seemed a little unclear, particularly the secondary story between Violet and Monty, but there are some touching moments in the show, especially the exchanges between young Violet (the adorable Audree Hedequist) and her deceased Dad (Michael Mendiola), and the scene between Violet and the preacher (which is a little reminiscent of “The Wizard of Oz”) really works well. But it’s the cast (and excellent orchestra, who were nestled upstage) that really makes this show sing. Alison McCarten, who was so good in Speakeasy’s hilarious “Bad Jews” last year, follows up with a winning performance as Violet, and shows off her ample vocal talents as well. The aforementioned Belnavis is a powerful and emotive singer, and Lula Buffington is sensational leading the “Raise Me Up” gospel choir. Kathy St. George lends her trademark comic relief as well as her terrific pipes to this production, and the rest of the cast is uniformly solid. If you’re looking for a musical that truly has great music, this show is for you. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/