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How to Heal for Real

Skylight’s ‘Violet’ astutely addresses topical issues

Sep. 13, 2016
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Violet is about “transformation that comes from a place deep inside,” stage director Sheri Williams Pannell explains. “Violet’s journey ultimately taps into the power of unconditional love and becomes a musical about hope. You walk out feeling better not only about who you are, but about humanity.”

Violet began life as the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts. In the mid-’90s it came to the attention of American composer and arranger Jeanine Tesori, who, with Brian Crawley’s Pilgrim-based book and lyrics in hand, wrote Violet’s evocative score. The songs follow the titular character’s bus journey across the segregated South and reflect her flashbacks, musings, longings and encounters along the way. Of the score, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley lauded how “Violet integrates a number of styles—from gospel and bluegrass to Memphis blues … Ms. Tesori has a fine hand for harmonies and counterpoint.” When Violet received its Broadway premiere two years ago, Times critic Charles Isherwood praised Tesori’s music thus: “With its tangy flavors of country, gospel, blues and honky-tonk rock, it is … her warmest, most accessible score.” 

Violet is also far from Tesori’s only major work. She has composed several other musicals, including Fun Home, Shrek: The Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline or Change, six film scores and an opera, The Lion, The Unicorn and Me. Her works have garnered Tony, Obie, Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics Circle awards. Now, Tesori’s Violet is finally going to receive its Milwaukee premiere in a production by Skylight Musical Theatre.

Violet, a North Carolina woman stricken by a tragic, disfiguring accident early in life, is determined to seek healing from an Oklahoma-based televangelist. Such an obviously forlorn hope would appear to be setting her up for major disappointment, but unexpected events transpire that bring Violet, at long last, a form of healing she never even thought of. 

Allie Babich, who plays the title character, will be making her Skylight debut. Lamar Jefferson makes his own Skylight debut as Flick, a black sergeant Violet encounters en route at a stop in Tennessee, where she also meets his friend and fellow soldier, Monty (played by Alex Mace, last seen in the Skylight’s 2014 production of Hair). This trio forms the dramatic crux of the musical.

The Skylight’s interim artistic director, Ray Jivoff, thinks that Violet is an especially apropos work to present to Milwaukee audiences this season. “In light of the social unrest going on right now in our town, it is particularly timely that this musical deals with racial and social issues. I am reminded that as a society, the only way we can move forward is to share our stories. Violet is not just a black story or a white story or a young woman’s story, it’s a personal and human story about race, gender, beauty and faith.”

Violet runs Sept. 30 through Oct. 16 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets and more information, call 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.

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