Saturday, October 04, 2008

NYU Brings Tesori's Violet To Light

Have you ever heard the cast recording for a show and fallen in love with it without ever having seen the fully-realized production or read the script? I think there is something very special about a musical that captures your devotion purely based on the music. Some of my most passionate musical love affairs have started this way: Hair and Merrily We Roll Along immediately come to mind. As do some lesser known gems like Iconis’ The Black Suits and Tesori's Violet.

Even though I have had to limit my intake of theatre in 2008, I did have the opportunity to see all four of these productions professionally staged. And good ol’ Thespis did me a favor, too, and smiled on the price tag: I saw all shows for the total ticket price of $60. Yes, boys and girls, you can see quality theatre on a budget!

Basically, if you take these four shows and throw in Bare and a couple plays you’ve got my fantasy directing roster in your hands. Despite (or perhaps because of) my deep affinity for these shows, I have somehow managed to avoid reviewing any of them. Fearful, I suppose, that my own personal vision might cloud my judgment.

This aforementioned avoidance, however, ends here.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to take in the NYU Steinhardt School’s production of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s obscure Off-Broadway success Violet. Directed by NYU faculty wunderkind John Simpkins, this production is well-paced, deftly performed and visually exhilarating.

Based on Doris Betts’ novel, The Ugliest Pilgrim, this seldom-produced musical tells the tale of Violet’s journey to visit a faith healer in Oklahoma who she hopes will rid her of the disfiguring scar that she accidentally received from her father’s wayward axe. Along the way, she meets two soldiers who help her to understand the power of forgiveness, acceptance and the beauty we all hold within.

Set during the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, the story offers plenty of opportunity for poignant parallels between Violet’s isolation and that felt by African Americans during a volatile time in our country’s history. Violet also explores religious fanaticism and how the business of the church preys upon the faithful. In both instances, however, the book touches upon these moments all too topically and sometimes borders on the cliché. The dialogue in Violet serves primarily as a way to get from one song to another, which is where most of the storytelling is done.

Most theatre aficionados know Jeanine Tesori as the composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie or Caroline, or Change. These days, Ms. Tesori is working on bringing Dreamworks’ Shrek to the boards. However, it is through Violet’s Southern influenced score that I first got turned on to Tesori. The rousing “On My Way” is a cabaret favorite and the melodic “Lay Down Your Head” was recorded by the incomparable Audra McDonald on her solo album How Glory Goes. The music in this production is rich in gospel, country and blues flavors and, for me, that is music that is comfort food for the soul.

It is no secret that NYU breeds Broadway talent of the finest stock and the cast assembled by Mr. Simpkins only proves that fact. The ensemble of actors, which is comprised of Steinhardt Vocal Performance majors and Masters candidates, masterfully executes the rangy score under the musical direction of Stan Tucker, who also conducts.

In the title role, senior Caitlyn Caughell turns in a stunning performance. An Oklahoma native, she expertly slips into Violet’s country drawl and, despite the fact the scar is invisible to the audience’s eye, Ms Caughell makes you feel the pain of a scar that runs miles deep. The real treat, however, is when she sings and her voice fills the room. Whether sassy, robust or sweet, Ms. Caughell navigates each song with great skill and a big heart, particularly when she implores her father to look at her disfigured face in the aptly-titled “Look At Me”.

As the soldiers that accompany Violet on her journey, senior Gregory Williams (Flick) and junior Rich Krakowski (Monty) are as we want our leading men to be: strong yet gentle. Mr. Williams’ agile tenor voice brings down the house with “Let It Sing” and he delivers a moving performance in what I believe to be the most underwritten character in the play. Mr. Krakowski shines in “You’re Different” and when he implores Violet in “Promise Me, Violet” there is no question in your mind why she does.

The solid performance of senior Ryan Speakman as Violet’s father, the effervescence of junior Natalie Hinds as Young Vi and the sultry song stylings of junior Melanie Field as the Music Hall Singer/Mabel highlight what truly is a strong ensemble of actors with no weak link among them.

Simpkins’ direction and Jennifer Werner’s choreography guide the actors fluidly from scene to scene on a set that easily adapts to multiple locations. With the help of a few period style signs, some moveable furniture pieces and a woodshed, we easily "travel on" with Violet and her entourage. Most notable is the revolving wooden structure that serves as a mountain, a choir loft and a night club. I’ve seen several of Simpkins’ productions and once again he deftly uses levels, angles and multifunctional set pieces to conquer the challenge of musicals with multiple locales.

Violet is a gem that has been lovingly unearthed by NYU. And while she may be the wallflower when you’re looking at your dance card, taking Violet for a whirl at Frederick Loewe Theatre may just surprise you.

NYU’s Violet runs September 26-27, and October 2-4 at 8:00pm and September 28 and October 5 at 3:00pm at the Frederick Loewe Theatre at 35 West 4th Street. Tickets are $20 general admission and $5 with valid NYU ID. For more information and to make ticket reservations, call (212) 998-5281.


python339 said...


My love. My sweet. My own.

I, too, love Violet. I find it wonderful to contemplate the range of Tesori's talent: that she can handle serious shows like Violet and Caroline, as well as populist fare such as Shrek and Millie.

However, until Violet becomes a movie, it will not have a soundtrack. As it stands, it has a cast album. Movies have soundtracks, shows have cast albums. I even include a question to that effect on my midterm. Sorry to be didactic, but it's one of my pet peeves.

Can you still love me in spite of my pedantry? ;-)


Alicia said...

Ahhh... You are all too correct. I have made the appropriate edit.

And it is BECAUSE of your pedantry that I love you! :)

Patti Ann said...

violet is such a gorgeous show. i never get tired of hearing "on my way."