Jeanine Tesori’s music has been slaloming subtly through the South’s stage doors with successive strength over the past year. Since June, audiences have been appraising the fruits of her laboured love in both the Broadway transfer of Fun Home (at the Young Vic) and the current revival of Caroline, or Change (at the Playhouse Theatre). It seems fitting then – if a little late – that her first musical, Violet, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, which has been waiting in the wings for well over two decades, should receive its long-awaited UK premiere.
“A captivating, semi-recitative, musical tapestry of America.”
Based on Dorris Betts’ short story, The Ugliest Pilgrim, Violet follows a facially disfigured woman (of the same name) as she travels from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma by Greyhound bus in pursuit of a healing televangelist. Performed effortlessly by Kaisa Hammarlund, who dazzled audiences as Alison in Fun Home, Violet’s reveries of future miracles and of past traumas, interrupted by fellow passengers and regular pit stops along the southeastern states, create a captivating, semi-recitative, musical tapestry of America, trailblazing through country, gospel, bluegrass, and rhythm and blues styles with jukebox joviality.
But there are other standout performances in this chamber piece directed by Shuntaro Fujita, who deftly juggles the interweaving sociopolitical strata, reflected in the set’s collaged cutouts of facial features and catechism verses plastering the walls (Morgan Large’s handy work). Jay Marsh is vocally affecting in his portrayal of Flick, juxtaposing the racial undertones of 1964 against Violet’s vanity venture; Janet Mooney is equally outspoken in her commentating roles of Old Woman and Hooker. It is the chorus, however, that help career this musical of travel from terminus to terminus, embodying portraits of the dregs and disciples of the southeast.
And where better to anchor this terrific ‘new’ musical – and it is terrific – than the especially revamped Charing Cross Theatre, which, until now, has remained stubbornly proscenium-arched, transformed into a focused, traverse space. The band (led assuredly by Dan Jackson) alas, are still broadcasted from the green room into the acoustically cavernous theatre; here’s hoping an amplification solution is on the horizon.
Image: Scott Rylander