A Musical Miracle

Violet heralds the emergence of an exciting new theater composer

Most theatergoers have probably never heard of Violet. When this rambunctious musical debuted off-Broadway in 1997, it ran for only four weeks. It used to be that a mere four-week engagement would relegate a show to oblivion, but in a world hungry for new musicals, Violet enjoys a thriving existence in regional and university theaters, thanks largely to enthusiastic word of mouth that proves well deserved.

Violet is based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim," a short story by Southern writer Doris Betts. Since its publication 30 years ago, the story has developed an ardent cult following, especially among younger readers. The plot, which is based on an experience from Betts' youth, concerns a shy, disfigured young mountain woman who goes in search of a miracle. At age thirteen, Violet's face was maimed in a freak ax accident. Now, in 1964, after having lived half her life under the stigma of averted eyes, 25-year-old Violet travels by bus across the segregated South to Oklahoma. There, she expects a TV evangelist to heal the scar that stretches across her cheek and into her broken heart.

Although the unseen scar is left to the viewer's imagination, it is crystal-clear that Violet's journey of self-discovery places her neatly in the uplifting genre that includes such love-starved yet radiant heroines as Jane Eyre, Laura Pennington in The Enchanted Cottage and Lizzie Curry in The Rainmaker. Perhaps every generation needs to discover for itself the truism about beauty's being only skin-deep.

As adapted by Brian Crawley -- and especially thanks to the infectious music score by Jeanine Tesori (who has since found Broadway success with Thoroughly Modern Millie) -- Violet captivates from start to finish. Stephen Sondheim, America's pre-eminent theater composer, subscribes to the tenet that characters should not sing unless and until spoken words fail them. But there are no hard rules about how to write a musical, and Tesori takes a wildly contrary approach. Her characters sing about everything. If someone is partial to ketchup on French fries, he'll sing about it, and usually in a toe-tapping way.

The score is a spirited blend of country & Western, folk, blues and gospel. Each successive song is more fetching, or more melodic, or more wistful, than the one before. Betts has said that as she wrote her "mountain ballad" of a short story, in her mind she heard Joan Baez singing old folk songs. But Violet sings to fresh, original music that heralds the emergence of an exciting new theater composer.

As the maimed mountain girl who yearns for Gene Tierney eyes and Ava Gardner eyebrows, Kara Boyer's resilient Violet is suffused with a gentle serenity. The entire evening is nurtured by her brave smile. Boyer helms an eleven-person cast notable for strong voices. Among the other outstanding performances, Chris White excels as a sensitive black soldier who teaches Violet lessons in tolerance. As she scampers barefoot through the flashback sequences, Sierra Scott is a persuasive and appealing young Violet.

It's almost a disservice to note that this production is being presented by the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts, for the inference is that the actors are students -- which is true but also irrelevant. Forget the limitations of such labels as "student" and "amateur." Violet is as satisfying a locally mounted musical as St. Louis has seen in recent years -- period.

David Caldwell's fluid yet precise direction builds on the show's organic structure. No one in Violet stops to sing a song. Music is an outgrowth of character, which is an outgrowth of situation. As performed in the Studio Theatre in the basement of the Loretto-Hilton Center, Violet bounces off the walls. Be sure to notice the floor, too. Emily Frei's scenic design replicates an old Greyhound bus route from North Carolina to Tulsa.

Betts has defined "The Ugliest Pilgrim" as "a story about a girl whose prayer was answered...." In keeping with her premise, an abiding sense of faith permeates the evening -- as it should, for to see a musical as lovingly conceived as Violet receive a production as fully realized as this one is nothing less than a revelation.

 
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