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Unsentimental Journey

Violet represents the quintessentially American spiritual journey -- the road trip. Set in 1964, it is the story of a young woman named Violet (Jennifer Hughes), who travels by Greyhound bus, her late mother's confessional in hand, from her mountaintop home in rural North Carolina to the Hope and Glory Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Violet seeks salvation on the most corporal terms. She hopes a famous TV evangelist and faith healer (Barry Tarallo) will erase her disfiguring facial scar, the result of an accident in which an ax slipped from her now-deceased father's hands and struck her.

Peculiarly lodged between Actors' Playhouse productions of Evita and You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Violet is a contemporary musical that artistic director David Arisco fought to bring to the stage -- and rightfully so. This play is as much drama as it is music, and it gives the audience a sample of a contemporary musical that longs not to be sung aloud but to be listened to. As we move through the rural South, we also trace the scar that burrows deep into Violet's face from her upper cheek to her nose and into her soul, alienating her as a woman and human being. It would be easy to make Violet an unhappy girl traipsing through a hospitable but quirky South, but she is no country bumpkin when it comes to matters of the heart. Brian Crawley's script and lyrics manage to capture the humanly flawed and spiritually twisted characters without coming off as a muddled Faulkner elegy. This versatile cast and Hughes' dynamic presence render Violet anything but a sentimental journey.

Jeanine Tesori's music flows seamlessly with Crawley's verse. Violet's journey is depicted musically from the mountaintop to the chapel -- from bluegrass to honky-tonk to gospel. The lyrics and their accompanying rhythms and melodies do as much to set the scene as the stage set does. Violet does not sound like a medley or tribute to a specific time and place (a potential pitfall when composing a musical score from several genres). Instead the music propels the action and stylizes each bend in the road with a different regional flavor. When the bus takes off in North Carolina, the country and bluegrass sounds give us an emotional picture of Violet's humble roots. When the bus pulls into Memphis, we are welcomed by the honky-tonk and R&B of Beale Street. Finally the explosion of gospel echoes the dramatic intensity of Violet's much-awaited meeting with the famed faith healer in Tulsa.

Kathleen Murphy Jackson's soul-stirring gospel solo "Raise Me Up" is authentic and welcome. Jackson's body sways, hands lifting up in praise, and in one swift stomp, she picks up the tempo. The ensemble (Barry Tarallo, Cyrilla Baer, Cynthia Ellis, Mark Filosa, and Jason Allen) bellows out enough sass and soul to create the sensation of a full-scale gospel choir. This troupe is also necessarily versatile. In one rotation of the stage, the players transform themselves from a disparate group of Greyhound passengers to a foot-stomping, tambourine-rattling gospel force.

The second act of Violet begins where the original short story, Doris Betts' "The Ugliest Pilgrim," ends. In that story Violet never meets the preacher, so Crawley took complete liberty in creating a new destiny for Violet. The direction Crawley and Tesori take is an interesting one. During the bus ride, Violet wins the hearts of two soldiers, Flick (Darryl Reuben Hall) and Monty (Matt Walton), who are traveling together. She challenges the two men to a poker game and shocks them with her bawdy jokes and card-playing skills. An offbeat but compelling love triangle emerges. Violet provokes compassion from the strapping young heartbreaker Monty, who sings to her, "I know that scar must run to your heart." On the other hand, the more serious Flick tries to convince Violet that salvation is not skin deep. As a black man living in the South at the beginning of desegregation, he knows something about this. Early in the play, a waiter in the bus stop diner sets the tone of the early '60s by calling Flick "colored" and saying he shouldn't be allowed to eat with whites. Violet flips her head and glibly implies that the young officer just might be traveling with her (a gutsy move in 1964). The soldiers disembark in Fort Smith, Arkansas, leaving the audience with a question: Whom will Violet choose on her way back from Tulsa?

If there's still any doubt, though, Violet's centerpiece is its heroine, played by Hughes. "I was born with the scar. It took an ax blade to split this face," she declares early on. This brazen statement adds grit to Hughes' slight form. Her emotional range is equally varied. At times her way of sitting and her gestures are very tomboyish and tough. Violet can also shoot back a swig of white lightning with the best of them. But her faith is heartbreaking, as she begs the preacher, "I need some of that fire off your fingers." Hughes' singing voice is solid and sonorous, a pleasure to hear throughout the performance.

The self-described "cancer-ender" and "tumor-disappearer" TV evangelist could easily be a Jerry Falwell parody. Tarallo frantically waves his Bible while jumping around the stage as if he's walking across a bed of hot coals. He shouts, "There's someone invisible but invincible in the chapel tonight." A true proselytizer, he kneels ever so humbly to quote Ecclesiastes, while ensuring the camera catches his good side. Not surprisingly the preacher's euphemistic sermons are not without their Freudian slips (at one point he accidentally calls the church service a show), but his character doesn't end there. He must answer to Violet's reverence and her rage, and Tarallo plays this part subtly, making the preacher not 100 percent redeemable but definitely human.

Whitney Weber's role as the young Violet adds a dimension to the lead character that is one of the play's strongest points. As a young singer, Weber displays an impressive control and vitality. She knows when to croon and when to belt out a tune. Her singing extends naturally from her performance, giving her gestures sincerity and her character an endearing charm. The timing between Hughes and Weber is exceptional. Weber often shadows Violet upstage, and she does it with great ease, producing an engaging visual equilibrium. In one particularly poignant scene Violet's father (Gary Marachek) teaches her to dance. While she careens around the room on top of Daddy's work boots, adult Violet waltzes with Monty.

So many "ethnic" musicals (The King and I and West Side Story come to mind) hold social and historical significance only as artifacts of days gone by. Violet is not such a work. I would have liked a more solitary ending, because the journey was such a personal one, but it's refreshing to see a musical not just consciously acknowledge the historical realties of its time period but actually deal with them within the script and characters.

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Mia Leonin

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