Violets Trip Is a Bummer

Lousy execution kills Violet,the latest small-scale, hit New York musical to receive its Southern California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse. Intriguing themes, complicated characters and a story with real potential are sabotaged throughout by Brian Crawley's feckless libretto and lyrics. The result is a play that feels a lot like a Greyhound bus trip at its center: long stretches of tedium punctuated by the occasional roadside attraction or interesting billboard.

Based on Doris Betts' story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," Violetis a coming-of-age tale with thematic nods to The Wizard of Oz(what we truly need is already inside us), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnand On the Road (what we truly need may be inside us, but it's awakened in the Journey).

Musicals ain't the format for the philosophical set, so it's a bit surprising that Violet, set in 1964, deftly handles some weighty issues—from racial intolerance and religious hypocrisy to the desire for personal beauty—and does so in mostly heartfelt, complex ways. But the songs are almost entirely useless, neither illuminating character nor amplifying dilemmas; they wind up stalling the story.

The Violet in Violet is a young woman from a hick mountain town in North Carolina. She's on a pilgrimage to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to gain a private audience with a TV evangelist blessed with the miracle of God's healing power. Violet carries on her face a disfiguring scar, the product of an errant blade that flew from the handle of her father's ax some 10 years before. Her father waited too long to take Violet to competent doctors; as a result, she's been told there's nothing even modern cosmetic surgery can do to fix her. Of course, Violet's desperate need to see this preacher isn't just about her face; it's also about finding a faith that gives meaning to random acts of uglification.

Along the way, Violet falls in with a couple of soldiers—one black and one white—and experiences a memorable night in Memphis before finally making it to Tulsa and her fateful visit with the preacher-cum-wizard.

Jeanine Tesori's music isn't particularly memorable, but it competently echoes the geographic transitions of the play, from folksy country to R&B and gospel. The cast is talented, with Kingsley Legg's Flick getting the best moments and the most mileage out of his strong voice.

Both Violets—Sarah Uriarte Berry plays the older, and Ashley Weber plays the younger—do as much as possible with thinly written roles. But there's a look problem: Berry is just too pretty. Yes, Violet's scar is metaphor, so we don't actually need to see it garishly slapped across the actresses' faces. But because we don't see it—and because Crawley's lousy libretto never really conveys the awful weight of a young woman disfigured—it's hard to buy into Violet's desperate hunger for healing. Weber, meanwhile, is a ferociously talented young actress, but she looks preteen. That becomes a problem when the ostensibly 15-year-old Victoria willingly obliges a local hick boy's request to be de-virginized.

But no performance can overcome Crawley's words, particularly in light of Sha Newman's staging, which feels uninspired at some moments and downright silly at others:the Memphis nightclub complete with disco ball and garish, anachronistic clothes seems straight out of Austin Powers' Electric Psychedelic Pussy Cat Swingers Club. Was there ever a more unhip, white-bread club in Memphis? Especially in 1964? If so, does anyone really need to be reminded?

Violet at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Oct. 10. $21-$40.

 
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