For a musical that addresses serious issues ranging from disfiguration to race, Violet is peculiarly up-lifting. Its exuberant soundtrack is a dynamic mix of gospel, blues and country – a true representation of twentieth-century America. Its script is a little lacklustre but, with its outstanding music and an incredible array of characters, there remains enough to keep you entertained.
Violet, based on ‘The Ugliest Pilgrim´ by Doris Betts, follows the story of Violet (Kaisa Hammarlund) who, having suffered a facial injury as a child, is searching for a cure at the hands of a corrupt preacher. Along the way, she befriends two soldiers bound for Vietnam who, through many heated arguments and romantic confrontations, assist her on her journey to conquer her insecurities.
The most impressive element of this production has to be the singing. Violet and Monty (Matthew Harvey) do the score absolute justice and their vocal ability is outstanding. Flick (Jay Marsh), however, steals the show. The number ‘Let It Sing’ is unbelievable and, just when you think it can’t get any better, you get hit by an unexpected high-note that is followed by a super suave blues run – it is a truly incredible display of talent! The gospel sections do the same: as a style designed literally to uplift a congregation, Lula (Simbi Akande) certainly does not disappoint as she raises up the audience with her infectious, rich and soulful voice. As a company, the cast continues this high standard and, through their impeccable harmonies, the soundtrack absolutely soars.
Such compelling singing is matched by the acting. Violet’s characterisation strikes the perfect balance between confident bravado and deep insecurity. Even her walk and posture captures this – not once does Hammarlund so much as threaten to lapse from this dynamic characterisation. Harvey is also incredibly convincing in his sleazy, womanising characterisation and, as a trio, Hammarlund, Marsh and Harvey have a wonderful presence and connection on stage.
Unfortunately, the good elements end there as the script puts a dampener on the show. There are clumsy interludes of comedy that are really misplaced amongst what can only be described as a really predictable storyline that plods along to its obvious ending. In fact, even the songs have a tendency to drag on despite the incredible talent that is on display. Having said that, this musical does shine brightly in its moments of melancholic beauty. The song ‘That’s What I Could Do’ sung by Violet’s father (Kieron Crook) is a masterpiece of tragic turmoil and Hammarlund’s pitiable vulnerability in ‘Look at Me’ brings the story to an emotional climax. It is, therefore, a great shame that the narrative takes away some of this brilliance and it is by no means a reflection of the talented cast.
The staging is another point of salvation. The revolving stage offers three hundred and sixty degrees of differing perspectives and supports the neat mirroring of young and old Violet. The fusion of past and present is exceptionally clever and gives much-needed gravity to the weaker moments of the script.
As a historical nod to the Greyhound buses and an exploration of some challenging issues, Violet is much more than just a feel-good musical and, despite everything else, is definitely worth a watch. Board the bus alongside Violet and enjoy the ride through the Deep South.
- By Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley
- Director: Shuntaro Fujita
- Book & Lyrics by Brian Crawley
- Music Director Dan Jackson
- Music: Jeanine Tesori
- Cast includes: Kaisa Hammarlund, Matthew Harvey, Jay Marsh, Kenneth Avery Clark, Keiron Crook and Janet Mooney
- Musical Violet ☆☆☆ Charing Cross Theatre Dates: 14th January 2019 – 6th April 2019 Times: Evening: 7:30 p.m. Matinee: 2:30pm (Wednesday) or 3:00pm (Saturday) Running time: 100mins with no interval Review by Grace Creaton-Barber 23th January 2019