So this is the good news: The UA School of Theatre Arts is chock-full of fine student talent.
The bad news is that it all goes to horrible waste in a lengthy attempt to make a terrible play—a musical, no less—an entertaining night at the theater.
Lord knows, these kids tried. But Violet, with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, is unsalvageable. Start unwrapping what at first glance looks like a reasonably promising package, and one discovers that what's inside is ill-conceived, convoluted and—worst of all—boring.
Please understand that I'm talking about the play; the students themselves give solid performances, are impressive singers and throw themselves wholeheartedly into this misguided piece of storytelling.
Jessica Orona's set works very well, able to suggest constantly shifting locales. Costume designer Jessica Batista and lighting designer David Carr contribute very solid work. There's a terrific orchestra led by Elizabeth Spencer, with musical direction by Monte Ralstin. Sure, there are problems. The band sometimes overpowers the singers; there are diction issues; and it's obvious that some of the actors possess more well-developed skills than others.
But the play's the thing.
Based on a short story by Doris Betts, the play is set in 1964 and features Violet (an absolutely wonderful Rebecca Spigelman), a 25-year old spirited and spunky child of the mountains of North Carolina. But she can't reconcile herself with her appearance, which is marred by a facial scar, the result of an ax wielded by her father in an accident when she was 14. (Or was it an accident? This, like so many other quasi-issues in this play, is flung on the stage and left there unattended, distracting and irrelevant.)
She saves her money and hops on a bus to Oklahoma to see if she can be healed by a TV evangelist, an obvious reference to Oral Roberts and his fame as a conduit for God's healing power. (Although, as I recall, you could just put your hand on the television and get the same healing results. Of course, then there would be no play ... hmmm.)
On the bus, Violet meets a couple of soldiers, Monty (a solid Travis Brown) and Flick (Damian Lemar Hudson, whose acting skills are not quite as well-honed as his vocal ones). Monty is white; Flick is black. These days of travel, you'd think, would provide a perfect opportunity for character discovery and the development of relationships which would drive the story forward. But not here. Violet hangs out with the soldiers, but their interactions don't give us the substance that we need to know and care for them. The idea of romance is hinted at, but nothing engaging transpires that suggests a credible—or particularly interesting—move in that direction.
The songs are OK, and they are performed well. But they interfere with the momentum of the story when they should propel it. Even a wonderful gospel number, featuring an outrageous Tamika Lawrence, is not relevant to what the play seems to want to be about.
What's needed is a storyline—supported by the music—which grabs you and takes you somewhere, with characters who engage your head and heart. This can only be accomplished when writers focus, impose limits, and locate and underscore that which develops and deepens what they really want us to care about. Everything else just gets in the way.
Director Betsy Kruse Craig has tried to get this all laid out in a production that looks and sounds good. But surely, she realized that a first act of an hour and 20 minutes is just wrong. What she needed was a good pair of lopping shears, and the courage to use them.
Kruse also opted to forgo the creation of an actual scar on Violet's face. This has been done in other productions, and the point, I guess, is to suggest that Violet is much more self-conscious about it than the nature of the scar warrants. But then we see people recoil in horror when they see her; they make insensitive and downright nasty comments. You can't have it both ways. If others find Violet a horrible sight, why wouldn't she be self-conscious?
I'm also curious about what it would be like for the audience to have to deal with such a disfigurement in our leading lady. Wouldn't it say something about us, as we each are asked to check in with our own reactions and judgments when confronted with such a thing?
Violet tries to get at something important, if nothing new: Beauty is what's inside. We must all make a pilgrimage to self-acceptance. But its undiscerning approach regarding what is relevant undercuts its effectiveness. Should Violet opt to connect with Flick, dealing with a facial scar will be nothing compared to what's in store for a mixed-race couple in the South in the '60s.
But this, like so much else, isn't addressed in a meaningful way. It's just a shame that so many fine resources were invested in this awkward and ineffectual script. A damn shame.