Violet studies faces. She even sketches their features in a book. For her own, she’d like a composite: Rita Hayworth’s skin, Ingrid Bergman’s cheekbones, and Grace Kelly’s petite nose. Violet’s obsessed with facial features. When she was 13, an axe-blade slipped loose and disfigured hers. Now 25, she has a deep scar across her right cheek, but she also has hope. A televangelist in Tulsa, Oklahoma, can heal by faith alone. He’s made cripples walk, the blind see; surely he can un-mar a face that’s “worse than ugly.” Violet hops a Greyhound in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, and heads west for certain salvation.
It’s September, 1964. The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, urged and won passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination based on race, sex, and religion. He also escalated the “police action” in Vietnam. On her way to Tulsa, Violet encounters people affected by these changes. Or, in the case of Flick, an African-American Sergeant, no change at all. As they travel through the South, although the Civil Rights Act is now law, his skin and her scar keep them in bondage.
They travel with Monty, a Special Forces wannabe. Prodded by the beauty-culture around her, Violet’s drawn to his “All-American” looks, even buys into his lonesome G.I. patter. Flick sees through the gab (“she’s not a one-nighter”) and finds himself falling for the hopeful pilgrim by his side. Pent up feelings erupt when he tears into “Let It Sing,” a fire-breather about working with what you have, not what you wish for (“There’s precious little, really, folks like us control”). As sung by Rhett George at the San Diego Rep with prophetic intensity, the Gospel-inflected rouser states the theme and centers the show.
Violet, an early effort by the now prolific Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline and Change, Fun Home), began as a long two-act musical in 1997. Apparently it meandered more than Violet’s bus ride. The San Diego Rep is staging a trimmed, 95-minute version. The cuttings, however, still show. The first third of the book got hit hardest. It’s a jumping bean, flitting here and there; much is sung-through (a concept emphasized less later on). Except for “On My Way,” a big production number pointing in the right direction, the story and the characters are sketchy. It’s as if the songs came first; during revisions, the book came third. As George belts “Let It Sing,” the musical leaves twisting backroads and breezes down the Interstate.
As if to account for, and get through, the jumbled opening, the Rep plays it fast and loud as a rock concert. Voices hit finale peaks, urgency reigns. When Violet reaches Memphis, things settle in (Beale Street has that effect). And a top-shelf cast, Sam Woodhouse’s direction, Javier Velasco’s choreography, and Korrie Paliotto’s band — fluent in bluegrass, rock, gospel, ballads — all kick in.
Hannah Corrigan’s Violet has no facial scar. But Corrigan plays her with an ingrained awareness of the thunderbolt effect she has on strangers. Corrigan also gives her extremes of worldly wise experience and clean-slate innocence. She can sing up storms, though one of her best numbers is the lyrical “Lay Down Your Head.”
A strength throughout: Woodhouse and his cast turn cameos into vivid characters: Melinda Gilb’s over-the-hill Hotel Hooker, another Beauty Culture reject, singing “Anyone Would Do”; Jason Heil’s electrostatic televangelist, who may be a believer; Jason Maddy’s guilt-slammed Father (and the moving “That’s What I Could Do”); Rhett George’s granite Flick; Jacob Caltrider’s hyper Monty, whose patter is so convincing he may love Violet after all; and Katelyn Katz’s young Violet, racing around Guilio Perrone’s sleek, windows-to-the-world set, hounded with hurt.
One of the show’s best numbers doesn’t fit the story, develop character, or perform other musical niceties. Reviews have spoiler alerts? Here’s a levitation alert: dressed in a choir robe for a rehearsal (Jeanne Reith’s costumes spot on as always), Tanika Bapitste powers into the gospel number “Raise Me Up.” She builds and builds, and then cuts loose. Just when you think she’s got nothing left, could not take one more step, she doubles the intensity. At that point, folks, don’t look down.
Violet, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, based on Doris Betts’s short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim”
San Diego Repertory Theatre, Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast, Hannah Corrigan, Katelyn Katz, Bryan Banville, Kurt Norby, Melinda Gilb, Jason Heil, Rhett George, Jacob Caltrider, Jason Maddy, Tanika Baptiste, Anise Ritchie; scenic design, Guilio Perrone; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Trevor Norton; sound and projections, Kevin Athenill; choreographer, Javier Velasco; musical director, Korrie Paliotto
Playing through September 13; Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 7 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. 619-544-1000. sdrep.org
Shakespeare had twins: Hamnet and Judith (named for his neighbors at Stratford, Hamnet and Judith Sadler). For Comedy of Errors, he multiplied twins by two and split them up. Two Antipholuses and two Dromios get lost and found in Ephesus: the alien Antipholis enters a fairy tale, the Ephesian, some kind of hell.
The Old Globe’s outdoor staging is bound and determined to be a crowd-pleaser. Forget the play (cut to 90 minutes), forget anything even resembling a nuance (the cast as a whole shouts the lines with zilch emphasis, and some, like Megan Dodds’s Adriana, blare them), just push hard for one-note entertainment.
On these terms, the Tony Scott–directed production succeeds. He relocated it in 1920s New Orleans. An apt choice, since Ephesus was notorious for witchcraft and voodoo-like curses. A Dixieland band parades around Alexander Dodge’s glorious, wrought-iron set — but shouldn’t they “strut,” Big Easy style? And Linda Cho decks the performers in first-class, Jazz Age finery. Glenn Howerton and Rory O’Malley do effective double duty as the masters and servants.
But as with the Globe’s earlier Twelfth Night, the Bard’s other twins play, except for an entertaining evening, the rewards are few. When people recall Twelfth Night, they’ll remember not Malvolio or questions of gender and religious tolerance — only the heaps of roses slowly clogging the set. With Comedy: maybe the gimmick of two actors playing both parts (and the let-down when all four must appear onstage), or the music and splashy production values — though not that the play could end with a hanging. They may also take away the impression that Shakespeare’s comedies are just silly, mindless affairs.
The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare
Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Outdoor Stage, Balboa Park
Directed by Tony Scott; cast: Lindsay Brill, Lowell Byers, Megan Dodds, Barrett Doss, Jamal Douglas, Austin Durant, Glenn Howerton, Patrick Kerr, Makha Mthembu, Rory O’Malley, Garth Schilling, Megan M. Sorti, Deborah Taylor, Nathan Whittmer, Patrick Zeller; scenic design, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg; sound, Acme Sound Partners; music director, Derek Cannon
Playing through September 20; Tuesday and Sunday at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. 619-234-5623. theoldglobe.org