Jeanine Tesori’s legendary musical Violet gets on its way at Charing Cross Theatre, the story of one girl’s mission to heal. Shaun Evelyn reviews:

Loosely based on the Doris Betts novel, The Loneliest Pilgrim, and originally produced Off-Broadway in the 70s, Violet is blessed with a sprawling soundtrack by Jeanine Tesori. The score is a thing of beauty. It seamlessly creaties an atmosphere where jaunty folk music can go hand-in-hand with the scene of a little girl being disfigured, slashed across the face with her father’s axe in an irreversible and devastating accident.

We meet our hero in 1964 – sad, solemn and setting out on a 900-mile journey in search of a miracle. Violet is struggling with shame, self-loathing and fears that her look will always keep her on the outside looking in, content that is truly #relatable. Aboard the Greyhound bus she meets Monty – an icky, young (white) corporal, played appropriately by Matthew Harvey – and Flick, an instantly charming (black) sergeant. Both are headed to Arkansas and a mixture of sympathy and curiosity lead both to becoming smitten with Violet.

Violet Charing Cross Theatre

Matthew Harvey & Kaisa Hammarlund (image courtesy of Scott Rylander)

On My Way is undoubtedly the iconic musical moment of the show. Storytelling and music blend extravagantly as the lead members of Violet’s transformation are introduced with delicate intricacy, weaving their ambitions and preoccupations with rolling vocals and rousing melodies. Flick and Monty are apprehensively on their way to their new military post in Fort Smith Arkansas, while a character known only as Old Lady – played with verve and poignancy by Janet Mooney – is leaving to be with her last living son in Nashville, “the music capital of the world”. Violet is on her way to a televangelist who (she believes) will be able to simply pray her facial scar away.

The collision of narrative and melody is thrilling.

So much of the show triumphs in this way. Let It Sing, performed with smooth warmth by Jay Marsh, laments his experience as a black man in the Deep South of America, still grimly segregated since the Civil Rights Act became law. Flick shows Violet that he too knows how it feels to be judged for something as superficial as the scar on your face, or the colour of your skin. In All To Pieces, Violet unceremoniously picks “Judy Garland’s pretty chin” and“Grace Kelly’s little nose” to build her ideal face, revealing that beauty standards in the 60s were no more forgiving then than they are in 2019.

Violet Charing Cross Theatre

Angelica Allen (image courtesy of Scott Rylander)

Morgan Large’s set design makes good use of the revolve, giving a consistent feeling of movement to Violet’s journey. Simbi Akande and Angelica Allen deliver stand out performances and a welcome change of pace.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Violet. Kaisa Hammarlund‘s performance unfolds in waves; her range of dramatic and vocal ability gradually uncovers the full depth of Violet’s trauma and longing.

Violet Charing Cross Theatre

Kaisa Hammarlund (image courtesy of Scott Rylander)

Ultimately, the only person that can provide Violet’s healing is Violet herself. Not Flick, Monty, the Preacher or her father. The climactic moment, when she finally looks in the mirror and acknowledges the person looking back at her with love, resonates beauty and joy all at once.

At its best, Violet is an example of how heavy themes, plots and characters can be elevated by song and dance. Here, these elements come together and weave a tapestry of rich emotion, a joy to behold.

 

★★★★☆

Violet plays at Charing Cross Theatre until 6 April 2019 before transferring to Tokyo. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the venue website.