“Violet”—A Musical Journey to Self-Love, at BAM, S.F.
Tesori & Crawley Travel Back & Forth in Time
by Nico Storrow
Bay Area Musicals’ “Violet” combines great acting and singing with the story of a young woman traveling to see an evangelical TV preacher. Violet believes the preacher can heal a large scar on her face—from a childhood accident with her father’s ax.
We ride alongside hopeful Violet (Juliana Lustanader) on a Greyhound Bus in this musical and metaphorical journey, strategically set in the South in September, 1964, during the Civil Rights Movement. On the bus, Violet meets two soldiers, one Black and one White: Flick (Jon-David Randle) and Monty (Jack O’Reilly). Violet is drawn to Flick by their shared experience of stigma and discrimination. Flick croons, “Let it Sing,” inspiring Violet and us with composer Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful ballad:
You’ve got to give yourself a reason to rejoice
Cause the music you make counts for everything
Now every living soul has got a voice
You’ve got to give it room and let it sing
Working from this idealized vision, writer Brian Crawley plunges us into nostalgic flashbacks: from Violet on the bus to Violet as a little girl. She plays poker with the soldiers; then we see her father teaching the young Violet to play poker. The contrasting scenes are touching, as Violet’s father, played by Eric Neiman sweetly embodies the struggles of a single dad. But the little girl with the wound still seeks redemption.
In one powerful scene, grown up Violet confronts her dead father, asking him why he didn’t do more to “heal” her. She desperately repeats, “Look at me.” But his pain, too, moves us. We can feel her Dad’s desperation, as he poignantly sings:
I raised a stronger child than me
Which will always be
That’s what I could do
I raised you strong enough to start
Seeing with your heart
That’s what I could do
That’s all I knew to do
Father and daughter share a magical moment across time, motivating her search for healing in the present.
Violet struggles with her scar, which has earned her the stigma of “ugly.” U.S. culture has heaped rejection on her, pointing at her “difference.” Director Dyan McBride shows no actual scar on Lustenader’s face, forcing us to focus on other people’s rejection of her. I wonder if not showing the scar on Violet’s face is giving in to the tyrannical mass responses that lead to her rejection?
No matter what, we share her suffering, as Violet, Flick, and Monty line up with their suitcases in hand. Then they sit in rows to form the bus, melding simple staging with lilting tunes and powerful emotions. From Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma we ride along with them, as they become more than friends.
The amazingly talented orchestra plays its heart out, from behind a rustic, wide-slotted, wooden fence onstage. They fill the theater with Tesori’s moving, emotion-filled music.
“Violet” is a story about social injury, racial discrimination, and the struggle for love. That’s a tall order for a simple story, but “Violet” takes us on a journey to the center of ourselves–and our country.
By the end, we see how brave she is to expose her internalized self-hatred. We join Violet in a common quest, both personal and political, as the show weaves a lovely web of time, tunes, and dance—a unique musical achievement.
All Photos by Ben Krantz Studio
“Violet” –book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, music by Jeanine Tesori, directed by Dyan McBride, by Bay Area Musicals, at The Alcazar Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, March 17, 2019. Info: bamsf.org
Cast: Juliana Lustenader, Jon-David Randle, Jack O’Reilly, Miranda Long, Eric Neiman, Shay Oglesby-Smith, Clay David, Tucker Gold, Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Kim Larsen, Tanika Baptiste, April Deutschle, Jourdan Olivier-Verde, Elizabeth Jones, and Danielle Philapil.