Front Porch Theatricals’ heavenly production of Violet has a lot of baggage.
Johnmichael Bohach’s rustic, minimalist scenic design is primarily comprised of suitcases, chests, and duffel bags that the actors sit, sleep, and sing on. This concept is not only incredibly creative and whimsical, but it also artfully realizes the themes of travel and identity that are central to the musical.
This show is the explosive kickoff to Front Porch’s summer season, which is being billed as “Journeys & Tall Tales”. Despite premiering Off-Broadway a little more than 20 years ago, the musical probably didn’t register on most people’s radars until it transferred to Broadway from a one-night production at New York City Center in 2014.
Both outings received widespread acclaim including the Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical and a slew of Tony Award nominations. By bringing together an exceptional group of artists all at the tops of their game in this production (which also marks Violet’s Pittsburgh premiere) Front Porch has cemented its reputation as Pittsburgh’s finest producer of musical theatre and the show’s legacy as one of musical theatre’s purest hidden gems.
Violet, set during the late summer of 1964, takes you on a wild ride with a disfigured young woman of the same name as she journeys via Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek a life-changing miracle from a TV evangelist. Twelve years before, an incident with a wayward ax blade leaves her with a horrible scar on her face and a broken relationship with her father (Jonathan Visser).
The extended trip introduces her to a host of diverse people and places including a hilariously talkative old lady (Becki Toth) and two handsome soldiers, Flick (Lamont Walker II) and Monty (Daniel Mayhak).
Both men take a keen interest in Violet as her fiery personality and dark past unfold. As an African-American living in a difficult time in history, Flick understands the constant pain Violet suffers always being harshly judged at face value. Monty learns from Violet that he does not have to rely on his machismo and playboy antics to make real connections with people.
When Violet finally reaches Tulsa, her steadfast faith in God is tested. She learns lessons that cannot be summed up by old clichés about beauty. Her truest journey begins at the show’s end. For the first time, it’s one entirely on her own terms with no clear destination.
I know I commended writers Jeanine Tesori (music, also responsible for Fun Home) and Brian Crawley (book/lyrics, also responsible for A Little Princess) for not saddling their skillful adaptation of Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” with tired platitudes defining the “true” meaning of beauty, but I’m going to employ a few now. Like most clichés, these are just true.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, in this case, that’s director Robyne Parrish. She deftly navigates Violet through its recurring flashback scenes while ensuring that each moment has equal visual and emotional impact.
At absolutely no fault of Walker, Mayhak or their extraordinary voices, the love triangle their characters are entangled in with Violet just doesn’t work.
Parrish allows that part of the story to shine and illuminates what emerges as the heart of the piece, the resentment festering between Violet and her late father. At my performance, you could hear a pin drop during the sequence where they sing “Look at Me” and “That’s What I Could Do”.
Two women play Violet, one as an adult (Elizabeth Boyke) and the other at the time of the accident (Samantha Lucas). Like the many actresses before them who took on this role, including Sutton Foster, their raw and passionate performances subvert the idea of beauty being only skin deep. Without the help of complicated makeup effects, they must create the image of Violet’s mutilation in the minds of the audience as sharply as it exists in her own.
Boyke is nothing short of a force of nature seamlessly pivoting from tremendous hope to profound despair as her character’s fickle fate plays out. Lucas’ haunting presence and command over an array of complex affects prove that she is perfectly cast as a girl wise beyond her years. Violet is disgusted by her appearance and lets everyone know it, but the work of these two great talents make it impossible to look away.
Violet’s “imaginary” scar is also brought to life during the show through the reactions of the people she encounters on her trek. The hard working ensemble of Violet is more than up to the task of making themselves look good while making Violet feel bad. Erich Lascek and Gena Sims lead the gospel number “Raise Me Up”, which stopped the show multiple times over its nearly seven-minute runtime.
At the end of this Violet’s intermission-less two hour run time, you’ll find that your heart has an invisible, deep, and permanent scar that matches the one on Violet’s face. Don’t make the same mistake she does. Don’t convince yourself that your heart is now broken or ugly because, as the preacher teaches her, a scar means that you’re healed.
Violet runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 28th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.