Much like its unlikely heroine, Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori’s 1997 musical Violet is a modest, small, but tough piece of theatre. Set in the 1960s, it follows Violet (Samantha Dodemaide), a young woman with a prominent facial scar who travels via bus from North Carolina to Tulsa, seeking the services of a TV preacher who claims to have the power to heal the sick and wounded.
Along the way, she befriends two young soldiers: the handsome and overly-confident Monty (Steve Danielsen) and Flick (Barry Conrad), an African American man who she finds herself drawn to. Every day both Flick and Violet have to stand strong against the prejudices that come with their appearances, but it takes Violet a while to understand this kinship.
It’s a simple plot with simple metaphorical resonances for the journey we must all go through in accepting and loving the people that we are. But it’s a near-perfectly constructed musical full of heart, with a gorgeous and accessible score by Tesori, inspired by the country, blues and gospel sounds of middle America in the early ’60s — the kind of music which is rarely heard in musical theatre, but cuts straight to the soul — and Brian Crawley’s lyrics, which are direct, warm and driven by character.
The Hayes Theatre production is the professional directorial debut of experienced actor Mitchell Butel, and it’s an auspicious one to say the least. Butel keeps this textured production travelling along with the fast pace of Violet’s bus journey, and understands the space of the intimate theatre perfectly (with superb, dusky lighting by Ross Graham and set design by Simon Greer, which keeps most of the performance space free, but evokes the sights, smells and rhythms of America’s highways). He’s clearly relishing the chance to create something with more nuance than might translate in a bigger theatre and has a cast able to pull that off.
Out front is Samantha Dodemaide, who brings a determination and introversion to the title role. It’s a difficult musical theatre part — the character has great difficulty expressing herself, and it’s mostly through Tesori’s score that we learn about Violet’s dreams, desires and insecurities. Dodemaide sings gorgeously (although she’s perhaps listened to Broadway star Sutton Foster sing the role a few too many times on the 2014 cast recording) and finds all of the depth lurking beneath. But she could still afford to bring a little more vulnerability into play.
As Young Violet, Luisa Scrofani makes a stunning debut and is required to carry a lot of the character’s emotional journey — the part of her life before she reverted into a deep introversion. Damien Bermingham (who co-produced the production) is very touching as her father, and the scenes between Scrofani and Bermingham are dramatic and vocal highlights of the performance.
The two soldiers are perhaps a little underwritten, but Steven Danielsen and Barry Conrad sing very attractively and are a well-matched pair for Dodemaide’s Violet.
But the full ensemble is strong, with Genevieve Lemon stealing (perhaps a few too many) scenes in her various supporting guises, Katie Elle Reeve and Elenoa Rokobaro unleashing their vocal powerhouses, and Dash Kruck turning in a memorable performance as the Preacher.
The musical standards are high across the board, with a surprisingly large band under Lucy Bermingham’s tight and dynamic musical direction, and Jed Silver’s sound design has most elements of the fairly intricate score in good balance.
This is Violet’s first showing in Australia after a 2014 Broadway revival starring Sutton Foster renewed interest in the musical. It also came hot on the heels of Tesori’s success with the ground-breaking Fun Home. While Violet doesn’t quite reach the same ambitious heights as Fun Home, or Tesori’s 2003 work Caroline, Or Change, it’s an engrossing and healing piece of musical theatre.
This is the perfect piece for the Hayes — contemporary, intimate, intelligent and slickly entertaining.