A Dual Critics Review: Violet at All Beaches Experimental Theatre (ABET)
The All Beaches Experimental Theatre (ABET) celebrated the first year in its new home with the opening of Violet, on September 13, 2019. The musical runs through September 29. The theatre is located at 544 Atlantic Boulevard in Neptune Beach, Florida. Visit abettheatre.com or call 249-7177 for additional information and reservations
Violet is based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” a 1973 short story by Doris Betts. The story was adapted as a film which received an Academy Award in 1954 for Best Live Action Film. The musical, by Jeannine Tesori and Brian Crawley, had a debut and brief Off-Broadway run in 1997, then made it to Broadway in 2014; the Broadway production received multiple Tony nominations.
The story, set in 1964, is that of Violet (Jen Mercer) who embarks on a Greyhound Bus journey of nine hundred miles from her home on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is twenty-five years old, and is seeking the help of a faith-healing televangelist, trusting that he has the power to change her disfigured face.
When she was younger – only thirteen – she was injured with an axe that broke when her father was chopping wood. As a result, she has a grotesque scar which appears to split her face. As an audience we don’t see the scar, but we do see the startled and pitying reactions of those she meets on her long trip to Tulsa. But she is optimistic, believing that through God’s help and the intervention of the preacher, the scar will be erased and she will be as beautiful as the film stars she admires.
While waiting at the bus stop, Violet meets two soldiers on their way to Fort Smith to receive orders; they are expecting deployment to Vietnam. She shares the long bus ride with the handsome paratrooper Monty (Chris Berry), who is white and his friend Sergeant Flick (Clayton Riddley), who is black. They talk; they also play poker.
The trip includes a number of flashbacks to Violet’s younger days before and after the accident, and we learn, among other things, that young Violet (brilliantly portrayed by Emily Collins, a Douglas Anderson freshman), was taught to play poker by her widowed father (Blake Michael Osner) to improve her math skills. Osner’s performance was heart-rending, as he portrayed a character much different from those in past appearances.
The journey includes an overnight stop in Memphis, where the Violet and the soldiers party on Beale Street. Violet, even though disfigured, is attractive to both males. She seems to relate more to Flick than to Monty, as they have a shared experience of being ostracized because of appearance: Violet because she has a scared face in a culture that worships beauty; Flick because he is black in a segregated society.
The meeting with the evangelist (Brandon Kraut) is a confrontational one; while he reportedly has cured various ailments during television broadcasts, he has little to offer her. Nevertheless, she leaves convinced she has a new face, although she avoids looking into a mirror until she makes her way back to her two soldier friends.
And as this show is running for two weeks, we will leave multiple twists, turns, and the dramatic ending for you to discover when you see this fine musical.
The musical has two dozen songs with titles that include “On My Way,” “Let It Sing,” and “Raise Me Up.” Everyone sings in this talented cast and all of them well. Much of the singing is by newcomer Jen Mercer in a tour-de-force performance as Violet. She belts out the songs with warmth and expertise. The music is a mix of styles with honky-tonk rock, gospel, country, and blues. And Emily Collins as the Young Violet has several songs, also done well.
Dawn Veree played two very different roles, one as a bewigged Old Lady on the bus, the other as Hooker, where she was able to display her wonderful operatically trained voice. Dr. Johnetta Howard Myers appeared first as an opinionated Landlady, then blew the roof off the theatre as Lula, who leads the singers in in a romping stomping church song. Elizabeth Bricknell, most recently seen as Fraulein Kost in Limelight’s Cabaret belted out a rousing solo as a Music Hall Singer. Rounding out the cast in various singing and character roles are Luke Gilboy and Brandon Hines.
The production is another gem by Director Michael Lipp, who, after moving to Jacksonville in 1984, has appeared in or directed over eighty productions on our local stages. He just finished directing Newsies at the FSCJ’s summer musical theatre and will be holding auditions soon to direct A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (opens January 24, 2020) at Players by the Sea.
Director Lipp designed the set which consisted mainly of chairs on wheels that could be moved to portray a bus, with racks for the luggage of the passengers. The costume designs were by Claire Cimino.
The Production Team included Michael Lipp (Director); Anthony Felton (Musical Director); Grace Guevarez (Stage Manager/Light/Sound Operator); Hunter Steinkel (Assistant Stage Manager); Brandon Hines (Gospel Choreography); Stephen Bifani (Scenic Design); Pamela Joiner (Costume Design); Claire Cimino (Props); (Bryan Frank (LIght/Sound Design).
We’re recommending this show; it has an unusual theme, creative staging, and beautiful music.