Violet is a multi award-winning musical with music by Jeanine Tesori (Tony Award winner for Best Original Score with Lisa Kron for Fun Home and Tony-nominated for Caroline, or Change and Shrek the Musical) and Book & Lyrics by Brian Crawley (The Little Princess). Developed as apart of Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theatre Conference in 1994, Violet received an Off-Broadway premier in 1997 and won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. The piece was then revised and presented in one act appearing as part of the Encores! Off-Centre Series in 2013 before transferring to Broadway in 2014 and starring Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, where it was nominated for four Tony Awards. Currently playing at the Charing Cross Theatre, Violet’s UK premier comes in the form of a collaboration between the Charing Cross Theatre and Japanese Umeda Arts Theatre.
Based on the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, Violet tells the tale of Violet Karl as she travels 1964 America from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa seeking a miracle cure for her facial disfigurement, a result of a childhood accident. Through flashbacks, the audience learns of Violet’s life and how it led her to seek the help of a televangelist in Tulsa. The story is Violets search for a new found love and confidence and a new life.
The Charing Cross Theatre production features Kaisa Hammarlund as Violet, Jay Marsh as Flick and Matthew Harvey as Monty. During the flashbacks Amy Mepham, Rebecca Nardin and Madeleine Sellam share the role of Young Violet on different nights and Keiron Crook plays her father. In a host of supporting characters from the televangelist, hotel singer, landlady, an older woman on the bus to the bus driver himself the ensemble is completed with Simi Akande, Angelica Allen, Kenneth Avery Clark, James Gant, Danny Michaels and Janey Mooney.
Kaisa Hammarlund gives a consistently powerful performance throughout. Her Violet is equal parts sweet, tough, naive and worldly and she uses her accomplished vocal to portray each part of Violet to perfection allowing the audience to easily travel with her on her journey of discovery. As Flick, Jay Marsh gives a vocally outstanding performance and easily handles the blue grass and gospel inspired score, his Let It Sing is a beautiful highlight. As Monty, Matthew Harvey is every bit the self-assured solider out for one last thrill before shipping off to Vietnam and Harvey’s performance splendidly completes this complicated relationship.
Presented in one act and on a revolving stage, Violet at the Charing Cross Theatre is played with audience on two sides of the stage. A combination of sound mixing, placement of actors and the accents used throughout made some lyrics and spoken lines hard to decipher. A big advocate for intimate in the round and thrust performances, I’ve never missed parts of a show before and it almost seems this production was directed to be performed in the round for it’s Tokyo transfer and the Charing Cross Theatre doesn’t suit the production entirely.
Jeanine Tesori’s score features musical influences from gospel and bluegrass to Memphis blues and combined with Brian Crawley’s lyrics and book creates a truly beautifully affecting piece of musical theatre. Violet at the Charing Cross Theatre is an intimate story of hope, persistence and the discovery of love and I urge audiences to see this very special show in its twelve week London run.
Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Scott Rylander
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