On the onset, let me just say how thoroughly impressed I am with ECLIPSE, the emerging artists offshoot program of Summer Stock Stage, co-founded by Artistic Director Emily Ristine Holloway and Managing Director Rachel Riegel. Their inaugural production of “Spring Awakening” in 2017 and their second show “Dogfight” the following year were highlights of two summer seasons for me. Their current production “Violet, The Musical,” which I attended Friday, is yet another triumph. It runs until June 15 on the Russell stage at Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre located at 705 North Illinois Street in Indianapolis.
An award-winning musical, “Violet” has music written by Jeanine Tesori (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Shrek,” and “Fun Home”) and lyrics by Brian Crawley, who also wrote the libretto that is based on the short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts. The musical premiered Off-Broadway in 1997 and moved to Broadway in 2014.
The musical tells the story of Violet, who was struck as a young girl by a flying ax blade when her beloved dad was chopping wood. Leaving her with a vicious scar across her face, she yearns to have it removed by way of a miracle. Later in 1964, she makes a pilgrimage by bus from her North Carolina farm, all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to secure the healing touch of a TV evangelist she hopes can “heal” her disfigurement and make her beautiful. Along the way, she meets a young African-American soldier, whose empathy for her makes it possible for Violet to eventually find self-acceptance and peace of mind.
This ECLIPSE production of “Violet,” produced and directed by Holloway, with music direction by Jeanne Bowling, is remarkable for the high caliber of the cast, many of them former SSS high school performers. The student’s talent and training was such that they more than held their own opposite the show’s two professional adult actors.
Simply sublime was the performance of IU student Elizabeth Hutson in the title role as Violet. Both from an acting and certainly a vocal performance, she gave Sutton Foster, who played the role on Broadway, a run for her money. Her spunky Violet, though experiencing enormous emotional pain, manages to project an optimistic, independent and upbeat spirit.
Matching her older self’s determination and hope was Leah Broderick, a Belmont University grad with a BFA in Actin, who played young Violet. She effectively met the challenge of matching the strength of Hutson’s characterization, with whom she was on par vocally and dramatically.
Ball State phenom Mark Maxwell, who played the black soldier Flick, with whom Violet shares camaraderie due their outward appearances, was a revelation. His soulful vocals during the gospel-infused “Let it Sing” when his character tries to convince Violet to rely on herself rather than the preacher, brought the house down. Maxwell’s acting was equally impressive as was the believably of Flick’s chemistry with Violet.
Also making a strong impression was Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music student John Collins as Monty, the macho, shallow young, white corporal, who competes with his buddy Flick for Violet’s attention. In possession of a formidable singing instrument, Collins dazzled in his passionate solo “The Last Time I Came to Memphis,” which Monty sings to Violet after discovering more about her, upon reading a treasured book she carries.
Already a fan of Carlos Medina Maldonado, I am even more so now after seeing him play the Preacher, which I regard his finest work, at least in the several plays I have seen him perform in at Phoenix and Indiana Repertory Theatre. He was totally convincing as the fiery religious demagogue, who uses TV to exploit his followers, fooled by his false sincerity and promises.
Equity actor Eric J. Olson, a veteran of numerous Indiana Repertory and Phoenix Theatre productions, also turned in a fine performance as Violet’s protective, loving father and like most of the cast, exhibited a fine voice and dramatic skill, especially when he sang “That’s What I Could Do,” when young Violet confronts him about the accident.
Lastly, showing star power in a small, but explosive role as the lead singer in the Preacher’s choir was Columbia College Chicago student Chase Infiniti (talk about an ideal marquee name.) Kudos as well to ensemble members who composed the choir, but Infiniti really stood out with her powerful vocals and the pure charisma she projected on stage. Like many of the young performers in “Violet,” I believe Infiniti could have a shot on Broadway if she decides to pursue it. Her solo work in “Raise Me Up” was truly spectacular.
An admirer of Tesori’s previous work, especially “Fun Home,” I looked forward to hearing her affecting music in “Violet.” I was not disappointed. With its rich mix of country, R&B, gospel and honky-tonk, I was thoroughly entertained by her engaging score, rendered superbly by the show’s six-piece band.
At a time when race and discrimination against those who are different is still pervasive, and a source of anguish for many, “Violet, The Musical” is an often wise and painful reminder of the need for tolerance, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that self-love is an inside job and not one that can be found externally.
Finally, as I have said in nearly every SSS and ECLIPSE review I have written, I always feel whenever seeing the two groups productions, that I am seeing Broadway stars of tomorrow. “Violet” was no exception.
For tickets and information about “Violet, The Musial” go online to summerstockstage.com.