Theater Review: "Violet" at the GhostLight Theatre
Violet at the GhostLight Theatre in Benton Harbor is a musical depiction of a young woman’s bus ride across the mid-South in 1964. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.
Director Paul Mow’s production of Violet succeeds for several reasons. This fast-paced show features an ensemble of flexible and gifted performers, as well as the uplifting music of one of present-day theatre’s most talented composers, Jeanine Tesori. Her score is beautifully rendered through the capable musical direction of Joshua Goines. Although the show runs an hour and forty minutes without intermission, it seems much shorter.
The production centers around the journey of Violet, a young white woman, whose face has been disfigured. The title role is brought to life by the strong vocals and physical energy of Emilie Kurtz. Although she bears the scar of an accidental injury at the hands of her father in the North Carolina backwoods, the gaze of Kurtz’s plucky character is firmly fixed on the promise of healing by a TV evangelist in Tulsa.
After boarding an Oklahoma bound Greyhound, some of those on board, including a loquacious Old Lady played by Carrie VanDenburgh, initially turn away from the ugly side of Violet’s face.
But as they begin to converse with Violet, they’re drawn in by her resilience, bright personality, and the quest for the transformation to beauty that will reward the young pilgrim’s faith. Likewise, the intricate harmonies of the bus chorus supporting Violet in “On My Way” draw the theatre audience in and make us fellow travelers.
Despite initially off-putting encounters with Violet, two of the passengers, both army soldiers, become suitors for her body, and later for her hand. Seamus Doyle plays Monty as a seductive and appropriately irritating, fearless white corporal, soon to be a Green Beret.
Richard Allen III, as the black army sergeant Flick, reveals an understanding of the skin-deep, quick judgements that Violet must endure every day. Allen’s soulful and rhythmic “Let it Sing” foreshadows a different kind of transformation than the one offered by the TV evangelist. Allen’s song and his character speak to change that comes from within.
After a stopover in Memphis and an evening of drinking and intimate encounters, the bawdy and persistent strains of “Anyone Would Do”, sung by the hookers of Beale Street, seem to examine the motivations of each soldier in the cold morning light.
An animated Gospel choir, punctuated by the fiery interjections of Eric Thiele as the Evangelist Preacher, greets Violet when she finally reaches the promised land of the Tulsa TV studio. Although the lyrics of the spirited “Raise Me Up” reference life anew, they don’t refer to the life that Violet seeks. And the Preacher does not have the ability to change the mark on Violet’s face.
A sudden appearance by Violet’s deceased father in place of the Preacher answers Violet’s request for a miracle and provides her with an apology for injuries he inflicted.
Although this forced turn in Brian Crawley’s script seems unmotivated, it does set up the final transition of Violet’s character, effectively rendered by Emilie Kurtz.
When Violet discovers that her scar has not gone away after her father’s apology, she sends Monty off to Vietnam, refusing his attention and his offer of marriage. Flick watches quietly from afar, observing the inner change that has occurred in Violet. Her commitment to the new life and the proposal he offers is realized in her moving request, “Bring Me to Light”.
A final note: the GhostLight Theatre decided not to show the scar on Violet’s face. Because the script and music strongly suggest that the focus should be on the lead character’s inner beauty, the producers of “Violet” clearly made the right choice. The show runs at The GhostLight Theatre in Benton Harbor through August 28, 2022.