If you take anything away from Musical Forum’s Violet, which opens tomorrow and runs through Monday, it should be that musicals do not have to be larger-than-life to grab the attention of audiences. Indeed, it’s Violet’s modest character that truly makes the show unique among its counterparts. Taking us into the world of twenty-two-year-old Violet, director Skylar Fox ’15 tells the story of a girl cursed with a facial scar caused by a childhood ax accident. The musical, made famous by actress Sutton Foster’s portrayal of Violet and based of the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” explores themes of identity, beauty, and inner peace.
The two-act journey takes us from North Carolina to Oklahoma circa 1964 as we follow Violet, played by the delightful Ellen Zanheiser’14, as she seeks out a charismatic televangelist whom she hopes will heal her scar. To the surprise of no one but the regrettably naive heroine, the televangelist doesn’t heal the scar, leaving both Violet and the audience wondering what she will do next. Evan Silver’16, a stand-out who portrays both the passionate televangelist and the not-as-enthusiastic bus driver, so expertly slips into the skin of the dramatic, sensationalist preacher that we find ourselves sympathizing with Violet’s belief in his abilities. The infectious, gospel-inspired “Raise Me Up,” sung by the angelic voice of Becca Millstein ’16, has the audience clapping and stomping right along with its robe-wearing chorus. Along the way, we receive glimpses into Violet’s childhood. Explaining everything from Violet’s scar to her Christian devotion, childhood Violet (Sarah Black ’16) and her father (Jesse Weil ’16) help us to better understand the origins of Violet’s insecurities.
Yet despite the musical’s somewhat rushed exploration of Violet’s ‘pilgrimage’ and relationship with her father, the story ultimately hooks us in with its love triangle. Soldiers Monty (Jason Connor’15) and the African-American Flick (Steven Bozier’17) both fall for Violet, leaving us to wonder who she will choose in the end. At the end of Act I, we see Violet and Monty drunkenly share a night together, leaving the disappointed Flick the odd man out. Connor and Zanheiser’s chemistry is obvious throughout much of the show; if you leave the theater on Team Monty, you likely will not be alone. But don’t feel bad for Flick. His and Violet’s analogous experiences of feeling uncomfortable in their own skin and begging people to “look at me” brings them together in the end. Missing out on an obvious plot-line, however, the show skims over the social ramifications this biracial couple would surely face. Further, despite Violet’s lifelong teasing and mistreatment for her scar, one surely cannot be convinced that her hardships would rival those faced by an African-American man during this period. Even so, Bozier’s velvety voice and Zanheiser’s effortless charm make them a match too perfect to question.
Beyond Violet’s plot, the musical is characterized by its crisp harmonies, dynamic soloists, and exceptional band, which plays styles ranging from folk to southern gospel. Musical director Michael Weisman ’17 runs a tight ship; the seductive “Lonely Stranger” effortlessly makes us feel like we’re in a ’60s nightclub with guitar riffs, piano banging, swing dancing, and the jazzy voices of featured soloists Georgia Wright ’17 and Hannah Margolin ’16. Wright and Margolin steal the show more than once and leave the audience lamenting that we cannot hear their sultry voices more. Not to be excluded, Bozier delivers a memorable and equally compelling number in “Let It Sing.”
From a visual standpoint, Violet is not what you’d expect from a musical. The stage, a simple 3/4 thrust setup, provides a first impression that hints at the show’s down-to-earth and straight-forward message. In Brechtian fashion, the show’s actors never leave our sight as props are acquired and costume changes are all done in full view of the audience. More surprising is the show’s use of reflective surfaces; a row of mirrors faces both the stage and audience throughout Act I, cuing us to one of the show’s fundamental themes: reflection. As the show begins, the beautiful lighting design keeps us focused on the actors, allowing for minimal distraction from these tempting mirrors.
Though the final emotional payout is not quite what we expected, the simplistic finale “Bring Me to Light” brings us back the the fundamental essence of Violet. Obviously, it highlights the vocal ability of its synchronized ensemble; the show’s strongest moments occur when we hear all eleven voices of the cast. Less obviously, the song leaves us with a final image of promise. As the older and younger incarnations of Violet hold hands with their father and Flick, a sense of return is given to the audience. Past and present join together with restored peace, allowing Violet to look toward the future.