A great piece of theater should seek the same three things that Dorothy's pals were pursuing in The Wizard of Oz. Because when you have a show that has a brain, heart and courage, you've got pretty much the whole package.
And that is what Violet offers, through the gospel-rock music by Jeanine Tesori and an intelligent, often unpredictable book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. Like the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman, this eponymous young woman is on a journey — to somehow reacquire her physical beauty that was lost at age 13, when she was facially disfigured in an accident involving her father and an axe blade.
Her goal is to travel from her tiny mountainside home in North Carolina to a hallowed site in Oklahoma where a televangelist does his hands-on healing. Much of this journey takes place on a Greyhound bus, where Violet meets two young soldiers who may be on their way to Vietnam, it being September of 1964. Even though Violet's injury is not made visible to the audience, she wears it like a scar on her soul and it affects every interaction she has with others.
In particular, Vi gets close with the two uniformed guys, a white dude named Monty and a black fellow nicknamed Flick. After she beats them at poker, thanks to her earlier training in the art of cards by her dad, they start sharing time with each other as the trip west continues. Intercutting from the bus to Violet's days as a child with her father, we see how Violet came to be.
By deploying a tuneful mix of blues, R&B and gospel riffs, Tesori finds the compositional sweet spot that defines a backwoods girl out in the world for the first time. And even though there aren't many sounds from that intense musical era that would place it unerringly in the '60s, Tesori and Crawley's songs sweep you along as this odd trio explores the world and each other.
As Violet, Amy Fritsche sings powerfully and with a full range of compassion, bringing supple resonance to the Act 1 closer "Lay Down Your Head" and her duet with her younger self in "Look at Me." But since the elegant Fritsche cuts such a commanding presence on stage, the only thing slightly missing from her performance is a tremulous vulnerability, playing in counterpoint to her feistiness, that Violet would likely exhibit in this situation. Even though Violet displays bravado in the initial poker game meeting with the soldiers, it should be a thin veneer hiding the young woman's massive insecurities, not the confident turn of a card sharp on holiday.
Indeed, while director Steven C. Anderson masterfully and energetically choreographs the somewhat complicated play so it flows from one scene to another, a central truth becomes muted. We get the feeling that this Violet — so often standing tall and proud — could handle herself in pretty much any situation. That is a fine message in general, but not as interesting a choice for this play. As a result, her interactions with horny Monty and conflicted Flick never seem as emotionally dangerous as they might, because we don't fully sense what Violet has at stake in those moments.
Jared Dixon is solid and appealing as Flick and performs his songs, such as the motivational "Let It Sing" ("You can make your music from the simplest things ... You've got to give it room and let it sing") with precise professionalism. And Ian Benjamin forges a compelling and humorous character as Monty, fairly trembling with his attraction to Violet and his youthful desires. It's hard to take your eyes off him.
Once in Tulsa, Violet finally has a sit-down with the Preacher, but she's disillusioned by the show biz nature of his gig. Wisely, Paul Floriano underplays the Preacher, a character who could easily go careening down the clichéd Rex Humbard/Ernest Angley pathway. Instead, Floriano finds the battered humanity in this man who once felt he had "the fire of God" in his fingertips.
One of the more telling performances on stage is that of Talia Cosentino, who invests young Violet with a contemplative mien that pays dividends when she appears at the end to help her older self make the right decision. And Dane Castle contributes a solid portrait of Vi's dad, particularly in his touching song "That's What I Could Do," when he wishes he could erase his daughter's scars.
This is a thinking person's musical, replete with ideas about the obstacles, superficial and otherwise, that torture us and prevent us from making the connections we need. As a result, Violet earns the rewarding ending it shares with the audience at the end of this bus ride to redemption.