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THEATER REVIEW: ‘VIOLET’ OFFERS SHADES OF MUSICAL GREATNESS

Violet is 25 years old, riding a bus across the U.S., pursuing a miracle. As with so many stories before hers, it’s not the destination, but the journey, that matters.

Unfortunately, as brought to life in “Violet,” now onstage at Ford’s Theatre, the journey doesn’t pack much of a wallop. That the musical is based on a short story by Doris Betts may explain the shallowness of the narrative. If it weren’t for the songs, the whole tale could be told in maybe 45 minutes.

And it’s a pretty predictable tale at that: Girl pursues impossible dream, girl meets reality, girl learns she can find happiness with what she’s got. (You don’t need the wizard, Dorothy.)

Violet, who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, was horribly disfigured by a flyaway axe blade when she was 13. By the time her father got enough money together to try to rectify the damage, it was too late. So she’s set her hopes on the healing powers of a television preacher all the way over in Tulsa, Okla.

On the way she is befriended by two soldiers bound for Fort Smith, Ark. We get Violet’s back story in flashbacks involving Young Vi and her father, but it’s in the interplay among Violet, Monty and Flick that the story develops.

“Violet” is set in 1964, and there is supposed to be a parallel between the humiliation Violet has experienced because of her scarred face and that which Flick has endured because of his black skin—except that this racial suffering is expressed by two characters insulting Flick in passing. Hardly Rosa Parks.

But there is music, and that helps. With a score by Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) and lyrics by Brian Crawley, the songs put some fun in the show. They range from bluegrass to gospel, country to rock. And director Jeff Calhoun has assembled a fine cast of singers.

Erin Driscoll is dynamite as the grown-up Violet, letting loose with numbers like “On My Way” and “All to Pieces,” in which she lists the movie star features she’d like to have the preacher give her.

Lauren Williams is Driscoll’s echo as Young Vi, feisty and exuberant. One of the best numbers in the show is “Luck of the Draw,” in which Father (a great Bobby Smith) teaches Young Vi to play poker while Violet is beating the pants off Flick (Kevin McAllister) and Monty (James Gardiner).

McAllister shows off a powerful baritone in “Let It Sing,” in which he gives Violet advice on how to live life. Kellee Knighton Hough really dusts off the rafters with the gospel number “Raise Me Up,” and Nova Y. Payton shines in the bluesy “Lonely Stranger.”

Also worthy of mention is Gregory Maheu as the disillusioned preacher.

The singers are ably aided by an eight-piece band directed from the keyboard by Jay Crowder.

When this show debuted off-Broadway in 1997, it earned the Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical. They must have seen something I didn’t. The music is good, occasionally great, and the actors give it their all, but “Violet” falls far short of “best musical” in my book.

What: “Violet”

Where: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW, Washington

When: Through Feb. 23

Tickets: $15–$62

Info: 202/347-4833; fords.org

Lucia Anderson is a writer in Woodbridge.

 

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