What might prompt someone to make a 900-plus-mile journey on a Greyhound bus? For the titular character in Queensbury Theatre’s season-opening production, Violet, the answer is simple: relief from 12 years of ugly.
When she was 13 years old, Violet Karl had an unfortunate run-in with the wrong side of an axe that left her with a vicious scar on her face. Since, she’s looked to doctors, snake handlers and even Catholics for deliverance from a life filled with people’s pity and their abject refusal to look at her. So far, her attempts have proved futile but she’s got one last basket in which to put all her eggs. It leads her to venture out of her childhood home in the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time, boarding a Greyhound bus that will take her from North Carolina to her promised land – Tulsa, Oklahoma – where her savior – a televangelist – films his show. It’s her last hope, a faith healer of the Benny Hinn-Peter Popoff variety who can fix her face through the power of Christ. Along the way, she meets two soldiers, one white and one black (an important note as Violet travels through the South circa 1964) and finds the journey, as usually the case, proves more meaningful than the destination.
Violet, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley is a charmer of a show, terrifically directed by Marley Singletary, who seamlessly blends past and present with top-notch staging, with excellent musical direction from Jim Vukovich, who does justice to Tesori’s music, which pulls from bluegrass, country, and gospel. It’s clear they have a deep understanding of Violet, an unconventional fairy tale built around a hardened heroine, expertly played by Teresa Zimmermann.
Zimmermann’s Violet is singularly focused in her desperation but also spunky, easily sparring with her soldier boys as they travel west. Costume Designer Kristin Knipp costumes Zimmermann’s Violet in a dull, drab palette of warm colors, from her ill-fitting cardigan and dress all the way down to her sensible, brown derby shoes. With her blond hair hanging limply down her back, she is the picture of a wallflower, which contrasts nicely with the steely determination and tartness Zimmermann brings to the role. And then there’s her voice.
Queensbury’s production suffered from a rocky take-off with miking problems, but eventually soared, and the tide turned on Zimmermann’s performance of the fun toe-tapper “All to Pieces” and paid off completely during the heart-wrenching “Look at Me.” The scenes Zimmermann shares with Kelly Lomonte, as her younger self, and Brian Mathis, as her father, are some of the most moving. Lomonte’s Young Violet is more lighthearted and buoyant, and the harmonies she and Zimmermann bring to the show are some of the best, while Mathis is the epitome of fatherly to both Lomonte and Zimmermann. Word of warning, his later scenes with Zimmermann and Lomonte are real tearjerkers.
And then there’s Violet’s travel companions, Monty and Flick. Adam Gibbs imbues Monty with an undeniable likability despite his caddish behavior. He keeps Monty seemingly harmless, more rascal than scoundrel. Early in the show Violet describes Flick, played by Derrick Brent II, as not just a man, but an adult man, and Brent exudes knowledge, understanding and confidence throughout the show.
Theresa Nelson, Tye Lockett, Jennifer Barrett, Doug Atkins, Adam Kral and Kevin Cooney all wear multiple hats in this production, notably Nelson as the talkative Old Lady on the bus and Atkins, Kral and Cooney as the radio singers who perform a sweet rendition of “Who’ll Be The One (If Not Me).” But the stand-out is a group scene in the chapel, where a choir, led by Barrett, is in turns exuberant and exhausted as they go through rehearsal with Cooney’s Preacher. The scene itself is truly a showstopper, from the acting to the stellar vocal performances to Bethany White’s fun choreography (which also notably appears in “All to Pieces” and during the trio’s stop in Memphis), as is Cooney’s performance. This one scene is worth the price of admission.
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Scenic Designer Ryan McGettigan and Props Designer/Scenic Artist Abi Harris deserve a lot of credit for bringing the world to life, along with Jack Jacobs gorgeous lighting, of course. Boxy planks of wood rise to the ceiling and cross the stage evoking the musical’s rustic setting. And across this rustic backdrop is a strip of newsprint that foregrounds not only the Civil Rights-era setting but the bus itself, a contested, highly politicized mode of transportation at the time and much of the musical’s location.
Violet, much like its titular character, is not without its flaws (linking a woman’s pilgrimage in the name of beauty to the black American experience of the 1960s, and Flick’s wise, wisdom-dispensing character to name two biggies). And in this particular production, sounds problems plagued the first few songs, and words and phrases were lost throughout the show. And personally, my seat directly faced a backstage exit, where the curtain I assume is usually closed was open, and the light in the room on the other side was on, giving me a perfectly distracting view of not only the open push bar door but the actors going in and out, in and out, not to mention standing there flipping through the script and taking water breaks.
Still, nothing can distract from two simple facts: Violet is a show more than worth seeing and Queensbury does more than do it justice.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. Through September 23. For more information, call 713-467-4497 or visit queensburytheatre.org. $25 to $50.