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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Violet
Northern Kentucky University
Review by Scott Cain


The Cast
Photo by Tammy Cassesa
Cincinnati and Dayton audiences are lucky to have a number of excellent and up-and-coming collegiate musical theater programs. These programs stage exciting productions of shows that are often lesser known, such as Violet, currently being presented at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). Though not a perfect show, Violet is one with many worthwhile qualities, and NKU's mounting showcases several first-rate performances and strong musicianship.

Violet is based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim," a short story by Doris Betts. The musical takes place in 1964 and centers on a young woman who has a facial scar from a childhood accident. Twentysomething Violet boards a bus from her small mountain town in rural North Carolina and heads to Tulsa, where she hopes to be healed by a TV preacher. Along the way, she meets two soldiers, one white and one black, and together, they learn many life lessons from each other.

Violet is written by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (lyrics and book). The music consists of many soaring melodies full of passion and color. Tesori, the composer of Broadway shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek, Caroline, or Change, and Fun Home, provides extremely varied musical sounds for each of her shows. For this musical, she incorporates gospel, 1960s pop, country and blues, all of which are appropriate to the time period. The result is an interesting and rich musical tapestry. Crawley's lyrics often come quickly, and his words are efficient, descriptive and witty, providing necessary depth for the primary characters. Musical highlights include the driving "On My Way," "Lay Down Your Head" (a lullaby for a tired lover), "Promise Me, Violet," and the haunting finale "Bring Me to Light." There are wonderful choral arrangements present as well.

Crawley's book centers on some complex relationships and broken people, but is told with sufficient empathy and care. Humorous moments are interspersed throughout, and accurate social commentary is provided, both to the benefit of the piece. The flashbacks and daydreams used in the show, though essential in providing necessary backstory, sometimes lack clarity, and the story is a bit episodic.

Director Jamey Strawn provides the appropriate tone and pace and has pulled excellent performances from his lead actors. The action on the bus, and at various bus stops, isn't as organic as it should be, and he's only partially able to overcome the vagueness in the script for the flashbacks and dreams sequences. Jeri Deckard Gatch supplies the limited choreography for the show, and Scot Buzza leads a talented nine-piece orchestra.

This production is blessed to have Ellie O'Hara in the title role. Ms. O'Hara has impressed in other shows here, but here she really gets to show off her acting chops and warm, soaring singing voice at full throttle. She is the foundation of the piece in every way, and excels in all aspects. As Flick, the African-American solider, Jeremiah Savon Jackson supplies warm, soulful vocals, along with layered and dignified acting. Chris Monell finds nuance in the cocky and immature white solider Monty and sings well. As Violet's father, Trey Finkenstead strikes the right balance between nurturing and guilt-ridden, due to having caused Violet's deformity. Hailey Watson is endearing and engaging as Young Vi. The remaining cast members provide sufficient performances–a bit uneven at times, but up to the task of supporting the leading players. The cast sounds exemplary on the choral portions of the score.

The unit set by Tao Wang features movable sloped sections and a wall of broken fence pieces to mirror Violet's physical scars (and to partially obscure the onstage orchestra). The lighting by Chanelle Pino features some abrupt use of spotlights throughout, which is somewhat distracting. The costumes by Ronnie Chamberlain are attractive and setting appropriate, but it would have been nice to have characters change outfits more often to convey the passing of time.

Violet is an ambitious, challenging, and ultimately uplifting musical. It isn't a perfect show, and neither is NKU's production, but with superior leads, a unique story, and praiseworthy songs, it's certainly one worth seeing.

Violet runs through October 2, 2022, at Northern Kentucky University, Corbett Theater, 100 Nunn Dr, 260 Fine Arts Center, Highland Heights KY. For tickets and information, call 859-572-5464 or visit www.theatre.nku.edu.


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