Just close your eyes and let the music and lyrics roll over you. The heart and soul of “Violet” lives here in pure, unfettered sound — a particular blend of country, gospel and blues, lifted high on sweeping Broadway chords, that never fails to seduce and beguile.
But if this grand and moving score can stand alone, and make you think immediately of how and where to purchase the soundtrack, can it also carefully guide us through the tender story of a disfigured woman’s search for beauty and inner peace?
The answer is both yes and no. Ringing off the Theatre Gym’s walls under the expert musical direction of Kim Fox and her intrepid five-piece combo, Cadence Theatre Company’s beautiful and endearing if ultimately frustrating “Violet” presents us with the sound of brittle, hope-filled voices too often drowned out by rollicking, high-octane, theater showmanship.
Written by Brian Crawley and composed by Jeanine Tesori in 1997, “Violet” rolls back three more decades to 1964, where 25-year-old Violet (Christie Jackson) sets out on a Greyhound bus from Spruce Pine, N.C., to seek out a televangelist in Tulsa, Okla., who she believes might erase a horrible facial scar, the result of an ax accident she suffered at age 13.
Winsome, haunting songs sketch the outline of Violet’s delicate self-esteem, as scenes toggle between the bus journey and its passengers, among them two traveling soldiers, Monty and Flick (Matt Polson and Josh Marin), and flashbacks to Violet’s childhood, where her father (Joe Pabst) does his best to maintain a bond with his injured girl (Sophia Bunnell as the younger Violet).
Despite Violet’s disfigurement, Monty and Flick both vie for her attention as each copes with personal disregard (African-American Flick endures both casual and pointed slurs) and matters of ultimate destiny (gung-ho Monty aims to serve in Vietnam).
As a thematic motif, Violet’s scar represents all that is hidden, injured and incomplete in the characters we meet along the way, and a series of standout supporting players in multiple roles (Eric Williams, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Scott Melton, Karla Brown and Robyn O’Neill) give flesh and form to the biblical notion of “vanity” — how human lives, fleeting and perishable, survive on spiritual connection.
The latest entry in the Acts of Faith Festival, “Violet” serves up production value that is a wonder to behold. With his roster of uniformly excellent actors, director Chase Kniffen pumps the show full of exuberance as he moves the cast around Rich Mason’s deliciously detailed set — the rustic, textured Spruce Pine feed-and-seed, which serves as multiple story settings.
Gregg Hillmar’s searching, dappled lighting lays hands upon the characters of “Violet” as if blessing each in turn. Sarah Grady’s costumes are period-perfect. And Janet Rodgers’ dialect coaching adds to the show’s authenticity by tracking the strange brew of accents that mark the bus trip across the upper South.
But by the time Virgil, the Oklahoma televangelist’s assistant (Tyler Nobles in one of numerous spot-on characters), dampens Violet’s hopes for a miracle by insisting “there’s a purpose in all suffering,” the show has indulged in so many show-stopping musical numbers that the quiet, complex details of its many diffident characters have gotten lost along the highway.
Who will love me for who and what I really am? This is the delicate and essential human question that “Violet” seeks to answer down endless miles on the open road. If only the show itself didn’t get in the way.