Nashville Repertory Theatre presents
A musical by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley
Through May 21 — Thu/Fri/Sat at 7:30 p.m. + Sat/Sun matinees at 2 p.m.
Andrew Johnson Theater, TPAC
505 Deaderick St., Nashville
615-782-4040 • Box Office
A beautiful moment arrives in Act 2 of Violet, an award-winning musical now on stage in the Johnson Theater as produced by Nashville Repertory Theatre, wrapping up their 38th season. It’s when the lead character — a young, facially scarred woman named Violet (Kelsey Brodeur) — believes that her defect has miraculously vanished. It’s a serene, pure and touching instant, only it’s not true. The disfigurement is still there, but for that brief, wondrous moment, what Violet believes matters more than what actually is. It’s a recurring theme in the play.
But how do we get to that moment?
Many Scars We Never See
When Violet was a girl, her father (a beleaguered yet warm Matthew Carlton) loses his ax while chopping wood and it slashes young Violet (an earnest Riley West and promising young thespian) across her cheek, defacing her for life. (In an eerie flashback, post-accident in Act 2, we see Father desperately carrying Violet in search of help). But the story actually begins some 12 years later. Father’s dead and Violet owns the farm, a bit of money, and a mission in her soul to visit a faith healer who she fully believes will erase her scar forever and transform her life at last.
We never see the scar — and that’s on purpose. How we see the scar is through how Violet feels about it. There is no facial makeup, no Elephant Man twist. The scar is Violet’s burden to bear much like anyone else’s — and we all have scars — a limp, a stutter, a secret trauma with its weighty baggage. We know Violet’s scar is there by how others recoil when they meet her. And she’s bold and plain when she rattles on about how ugly she knows she is; happy to share that it will soon be a thing of the past. And so, in 1964, she boards a bus en route to Tulsa, Oklahoma with hope in her heart.
Violet’s journey includes fellow bus riders, most notably Flick (Mike Sallee, Jr.), a mild, uniformed black sergeant with a painful past and Monty (Nathan Quay Thomas), an arrogant white corporal/paratrooper. Violet befriends them at a rest stop during a game of poker, but later, she’ll bed down with Monty, only to learn that he’s really not the type to ever stick around. By the time Violet doesn’t get her healing in Tulsa, she’s changed inwardly enough to discover love with Monty, who will stay, and who sees and accepts her for who she is, even what she looks like.
The show (directed by Tracey Copeland-Halter) has a few snafus found in the book. Violet’s promiscuity comes out of nowhere (a flashback feels tagged on as though to say, see this is why it happened) and her relationship with the two soldiers is vastly underdeveloped. In addition, we all know that the preacher (a terrifically wild performance by Ryan Greenawalt) won’t deliver her miracle. Although, to the preacher’s credit, he does tell Violet that she’s already healed leading to that one shining moment. A nine-piece orchestra plays country twang, honky tonk and more at the back of the dingy set (by Gary C. Hoff), a utilitarian space much like a dated bus station could be. And the cast gives it their all, with notable performances by Jennifer Whitcomb-Olivia, Lawson Marchetti and Piper Jones. When the gospel choir performs “Raise Me Up” with the preacher, we’re all catapulted into a revival of the first degree.
Kudos to the Rep
We love that Nashville Rep chose this particular show not only because it’s a Drama Desk Award Winner out of New York but because the Rep is pushing in the direction that regional theaters need to go: exploring new, meaty territory that includes juicy parts worthy of the actors who play them. If you’re ready to take an emotional roller coaster ride, Violet ‘s just the piece of musical theater for you.