Another one crossed off the list. I’ve loved Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley‘s score for Violet since the first recording of it was released in 1999, but somehow I’ve never managed to see a production of the show, which is very rarely produced on this side of the Atlantic (the advance publicity material for this production claimed it was the UK premiere, which it isn’t). When you love a score as much as I love this one, it creates a set of expectations that aren’t always helpful when you finally, after years of listening to the music, walk into the theatre to see it being performed in its proper context.
Fortunately, Shuntaro Fujito’s new staging of Violet at the Charing Cross Theatre – a coproduction with the Umeda Arts Theatre in Osaka, where it will transfer after the London run – mostly lives up to those (consderable) expectations. Based on a short story by Doris Betts called The Ugliest Pilgrim, Violet follows a young woman who was hideously disfigured in a childhood accident (the blade of her father’s axe came free from the handle and struck her in the face) as she journeys across the American south in 1964 to find a televangelist who she believes can remove her scar. It’s a tricky story to adapt for the stage – Violet is from rural Tennessee, relatively uneducated, damaged and defensive, and her belief that a televangelist has the power to restore her looks could very easily come across as laughably credulous. Actually, this is an intelligent, perceptive, often very moving examination of an unhappy, awkward young woman slowly learning to come to terms with herself, and that’s thanks mostly to Tesori and Crawley’s extraordinary score. There’s an unusual emotional intelligence to Tesori’s music here, and to Crawley’s carefully unshowy, conversational lyrics; this is music that grabs you by the heartstrings almost from the very top of the show and doesn’t let go until the last note of the finale. This is a book musical, not an opera-in-everything-but-name like Tesori’s Caroline, or Change (which is coincidentally currently playing right around the corner), so Violet’s score is a collection of standalone songs rather than wall-to-wall music, and several of the songs are extraordinary. Even if you don’t know them going in, you might well come out humming On My Way, the big chorus number that marks the beginning of Violet’s bus journey, and Let It Sing, the inspirational anthem sung by a (black) soldier she meets on her journey, but there are so many memorable songs here that you may be spoiled for choice.
There’s a marvellous cast too, headed by Kaisa Hammarlund, unrecognisable from her turn as the oldest Alison in Tesori’s Fun Home across the river at the Young Vic last year. Hammarlund’s heartbreaking Violet is a study in contradictions: brave and terrified, dignified and ungainly, warm and abrasive. It’s a magnificent performance, and she gives full value to Tesori’s music. She’s surrounded by a fine ensemble cast, with particularly memorable contributions from Jay Marsh (Flick, the black soldier who forms one corner of the love triangle that develops in the second half of the show), from Kieron Crook as Violet’s guilt-ridden father, and Angelica Allen as a singer in a Memphis music hall. Allen’s scorching performance of the Tina Turner-esque Lonely Stranger is worth the trip on its own.
For this production, the Charing Cross Theatre has (thankfully) been reconfigured, with a bank of seats on what used to be the stage and a traverse stage built over what used to be the front stalls. It might have been helpful for sightlines to raise the stage a couple of feet up from the entrance level – the rake of the seats was designed with a raised stage in mind – but it’s still an improvement over a space where it could often feel as if you were peering down a tunnel at a show taking place in the distance. On Morgan Large’s good-looking but simple set (bare wooden walls below the balconies on either side of the stage, a turntable, a few chairs and trunks, an oversized, all-seeing eye peering down from above), Shuntaro Fujito delivers an exceptionally clear account of Violet’s emotional journey; his direction is unshowy and unobtrusive, which is just what the material needs. It’s fair to say the show sometimes sags momentarily when the actors stop singing and start to speak; it’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with Brian Crawley’s book as that the score is so good that the connecting tissue inevitably pales a little in comparison.
The bottom line: this is GOOD, and it’s worth seeing. It’s also, unfortunately, selling very badly at the moment, and it deserves better: it’s a very strong production of a show with a good book and a stunning score, Kaisa Hammarlund’s performance deserves a much wider audience, and it runs an hour and forty minutes without an interval so you’ll be in plenty of time to make the last train home afterwards. Discounts are available if you know where to look, and this might well turn out to be as good a piece of musical theatre as you’ll see all year.