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Skylight’s ‘Violet’ a Triumph of Staging and Psychological Truth

Oct. 4, 2016
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Photo by Mark Frohna

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical Violet is a potent psychological and societal exploration. The action takes place in 1963 and follows Violet, a young woman from a remote town in North Carolina with a disfiguring facial scar. She is on a pilgrimage to Tulsa, Okla., where she believes a TV evangelist can give her a miraculous healing. On the way she meets two soldiers—one black, one white—who, though facing their own struggles, challenge her to reevaluate her conceptions of beauty and self-worth.

Jeanine Tesori’s score is a rollicking journey through some of the best musical genres to come out of the American South. We hear the twangy, ebullient country music that demarcates Violet’s childhood; as she travels west, we’re treated to a remarkable selection from Memphis’ rhythm and blues scene; and we end up with a Gospel number featuring Skylight favorite Raven Dockery that moved the opening night audience to tears. Anne Van Deusen and the eight-piece orchestra did wonders with this wide-ranging score.

The performers navigate Tesori’s thoroughly modern melodic structure and Brian Crawley’s challenging, layered lyrics with poise. Although words were occasionally lost because of the complexity of the arrangement, the storyline’s clarity always prevailed. Director Sheri Williams Pannell’s beautiful stage pictures, including ample use of split scene, maintained interest.

Allie Babich as adult Violet and KyLee Hennes as young Violet (the latter double cast with Ella Kleefisch) handled such moments well on opening night. Both have strong voices, boisterous energy and commendable mirroring ability. As Violet’s father, Jeff Schaetzke brings pathos to the show; his fine tenor supports his character’s wry humor as a poker instructor to young Violet as well as his veiled grief and guilt. Lamar Jefferson as Flick and Alex Mace as Monty, the two soldiers Violet meets, deliver tremendous energy. Both are excellent singers and dancers and their banter and play-fighting are highly entertaining.

On the scenic side, Skylight’s Violet benefits from many fine talents, most obviously Adam Stoner for his gorgeous, monumental highway backdrop, which immerses the audience in the feeling of being on the road.

In addition to its sensitive and realistically complex treatment of race, gender dynamics and inner vs. outer beauty, Violet is worth seeing for its insight into the human heart and mind. Like Tesori’s better-known Fun Home, Violet draws its psychic focus from a father-daughter relationship. As in real life, the characters take time to reveal their stories and heal from trauma. Moreover, the choice to keep Violet’s young self as a strong presence throughout the story casts her more as Inner Child than mere memory—an evocation of the many ages of self that live within each of us and the complexity of grief and acceptance that we all must face.

 

Through Oct. 16 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org

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