The quality of Violet exemplifies the ever-rising standard of the thriving independent musical scene.
In a boon for Melbourne music theatre lovers, emerging production company Blue Saint Productions presents Violet less than two years since its Broadway run opened. Originally staged Off-Broadway in 1997, the musical returned to the spotlight thanks to the interest of blue chip Broadway star Sutton Foster. Composer Jeanine Tesori also rose in stature as her new musical Fun Home drew attention in its 2013 Off-Broadway run.
Given that the staging of the Broadway season of Violet was very basic, the show is a perfect choice for a boutique production. In the intimate space of Chapel off Chapel, the highly personal drama achieves a strong connection between performers and audience. Indeed, when the Preacher’s gospel choir sings “Raise Me Up,” the infectious energy sees the crowd clapping along like a frenzied congregation.
Disfigured by an accident in which her father’s axe blade came loose, Violet’s journey down the highway mirrors Dorothy’s journey along the yellow brick road. The friends of Dorothy here are two young soldiers who, having seen worse from battle, are unfazed by Violet’s scar. Arriving in the emerald city of Tulsa, Violet soon finds that the wizardly Preacher is little more than a simple man behind the curtain.
Director Mitchell Butel has the cast work with unflagging energy and steely focus to tell the moving, ultimately uplifting story. Six of the 11 performers play multiple characters, each of which are clearly delineated. Racial integration is only slowly making its way through the American South of 1964, and Butel does not shy away from the sting of offhand racist remarks. Overlapping and simultaneous scenes are staged with crisp clarity, achieving the sophisticated flow that musical theatre can achieve but cinema cannot.
This flow is inherent in Brian Crawley’s tight book, which plays out over a single act of 105 minutes. The drama of Violet’s quest is established quickly when her opening I wish song, “Surprised,” establishes a goal that we know simply cannot be fulfilled. This tension bubbles away through the journey, until the combination of Crawley’s text, Butel’s direction and Sam Dodemaide’s towering achievement in the lead role bring it to its devastating climax. Thankfully, there is ultimately a message of hope as we see that healing of the soul is more cathartic than physical healing.
Using a set of chairs as varied as the characters, the Greyhound bus is represented in abstract formations. Simon Greer’s equally abstract physical collage setting of images of the road makes striking use of the tight space. Lucetta Stapleton’s costumes are grounded in reality but enhanced with a touch of theatrical flair.
Tesori has written an easily accessible, bluesy, gospel-infused score rather than a typical Broadway sound. Musical director Martine Wengrow on keyboards, along with five fellow musicians, matches the actors’ energy in bringing the fresh music to life.
Dodemaide is superb as Violet. Conveying the young woman’s delicate balance of pain and resilience, Dodemaide’s acting is as compelling as her belting is strong. Appearing vulnerable in her unadorned appearance, Dodemaide allows us to see Violet’s scar (which is not applied with make up) through the character’s learnt shame, fear, embarrassment and bravado. Witnessing this thrilling performance is as much as a reason to see Violet as it is to see the whole show.
Working as a perfect complement to Dodemaide, Luisa Scrofani, as Young Violet, gives an unflinching, intense reading of a girl whose carefree youth has been ripped away. As Violet’s Father, Damien Bermingham conveys the frustration and bluster of a backwoods man raising a daughter in difficult, if not impossible, circumstances.
Barry Conrad and Steve Danielsen are a well-matched pair as handsome young soldiers Flick and Monty. The men enjoy a breezy, playful journey while ignoring the potential threat of being sent to Vietnam. With an appealing sparkle to his presence and an exciting voice, Conrad is a terrific discovery for music theatre. He nails the upbeat mid-show crowd-pleaser “Let It Sing.” Proven leading man Danielsen deftly balances the selfish and compassionate sides of Flick, unafraid to be seen as a cad.
Deirdre Rubenstein is Melbourne’s current music theatre It Girl, joining the cast of Violet just a week after closing hit musical Ladies in Black. Demonstrating her powerful talent for text and character, Rubenstein’s kindly old Mabel is a darling, and her transformation to lady of the night Alice has to be seen to be believed.
Each member of the ensemble cast has their moment to shine as well as giving strong support throughout the show. Cherine Peck belts out “Raise Me Up” as sassy gospel sing Lula Buffington. Jordan Pollard flips on a dime from the glossy television act of the Preacher to his sharp real life personality. Versatile young performer Jack O’Riley sweetly croons “Last Time I Came to Memphis” as Radio Singer. Ryan Gonzalez gives a sympathetic performance as the Preacher’s put-upon assistant Virgil. Katie Elle Reeve exudes perky flair as the Music Hall Singer performing “ Lonely Stranger.”
For lovers of modern Broadway magic, Violet is very highly recommended.
Violet plays at Chapel off Chapel until 20 March 2016.
Man in Chair reviewed the Broadway season of Violet.
Photos: Ben Fon