Violet, the 1997 musical by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, is pretty different as far as stories go: there kind of isn’t one. It’s more of a character study of our titular gal and two supporting men. The score is completely mixed, with some incredible songs and some that should have been cut, or at least cut in half, so the show depends entirely on a superstrong production in order to succeed. When I first saw Violet, it was the 2014 Broadway production with Sutton Foster and Joshua Henry, and it was so shiny and bright and impressive that I barely noticed that a compelling story was missing. With smaller productions, like the current one at the Charing Cross theatre, it’s harder to hide the show’s flaws. Although it’s a pretty nice production with some great talent, it’s clear that Violet is a rather mediocre show – decent and sweet, but mediocre – and there’s nothing anyone can do to hide it without the distraction of Broadway excess.
So the plot is, Violet leaves her farm in North Carolina and gets on a long bus journey to Oklahoma to find the preacher at his next big television extravaganza where he will swindle more poor stupid people out of their hard-earned cash and give them false hope. She boards the bus with two army dudes, Flick and Monty, as well as a nosy old lady, lots of people who shudder at her face as per usual, and if they were going to Tulsa I’m guessing Chandler? As everyone boards the bus and begins their own journeys, they sing the first big ensemble number, “On My Way”, which is truly excellent in this production. All the voices swelled together and the movement was right on, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the better, catchier songs in the show. It’s the kind of big joyous full company song in a show that makes your heart swell. It’s right in the beginning, so I was like ‘oh wow this is going to be amazing’, but this was the best moment of the show. After they all board and eat their best snacks, I guess, they just like…sit on the bus and play cards and get to know each other and then they get to Oklahoma. We watch people suffer on a long bus journey where I bet they don’t get to pee very often and it was probably so stuffy and everyone smelled bad and you’re surviving on like gas station packaged snacks and all you want is a salad and for the love of god a bathroom. At certain points in the play the bus driver will be like ‘okay that’s five minutes for your rest stop!’ and SOME PEOPLE DON’T GO TO THE BATHROOM like I get that it wouldn’t be a great show to be realistic like that but thinking about long buses and NOT going to the bathroom when you need to made me super anxious.
While Violet (Kaisa Hammarlund) rides the bus and writes in her mama’s old bible, she thinks about how she’s gonna be beautiful and remembers her 14-year-old self, which is when the ax-ident happened. Violet and Young Violet (a maybe 11-year-old looking girl who did not look 14 and whose attempt at an American accent, I’m sorry, was literally this) sing and swirl around the stage (in the round for kind of no reason) together as Violet remembers her younger self, the poor girl she’s trying to save from a lifetime of misery. Meanwhile, both Monty (Matthew Harvey) and Flick (Jay Marsh) for some reason fall for Violet, Flick in what we’re to assume is a deeper, real love kind of way and Monty, because he’s more of a playboy, in a less real way. And here’s the problem. This horribly disfigured girl has two eligible men fall in love with her like immediately? Um. Our Violet, Hammarlund, was remarkable in the Young Vic’s production of Fun Home last summer, and she’s very talented and always enjoyable, but here she didn’t feel like a good fit. Her Violet is kind of/super annoying. And maybe Violet just is annoying always, but then why are these two random guys falling for her? It sort of worked when Violet was Sutton Foster because she is so gosh darn charming and disarming and adorable but I just didn’t feel any reason for the romances here. It doesn’t help that Hammarlund is tortured with a horrendous wig that like someone should be fired for so you’re extra curious why these men are obsessed with her.
Another big issue in that regard is, the audience is clearly supposed to want her to choose Flick, a solid, steady man who gets the biggest bestest song in the show, “Let it Sing”, and our Flick did a fine job with it. Monty is supposed to be this womanizer who only wants to sleep with her, so we are supposed to root for Violet to turn him down. But…Monty shows no signs of not being serious about her. He seems fine. Since he’s fine, there’s no drama at all in her choice. Maybe that makes more sense because that’s how real life is, with decisions that could easily go in either direction – you’d rarely have trouble deciding between two options where one is clearly great and one is clearly bad. But then to make this supposed drama of her love triangle one of the driving forces of the show means it all falls flat. The show is all ‘Monty’s a cad he’s going to desert you he just wants a piece of ass’ but then everything Monty does contradicts that. Sure Flick is probably the better choice overall but still, there’s no obvious reason for it, at least not in this production. You’re supposed to feel that theirs is real love, I guess, but there’s no evidence of it. And with the focus of the show being on the relationships between these characters, to find it not fully fleshed out enough to suffice as the only real story is disappointing.
Aside from the barely-there plot and the score that seemed unedited (why does the preacher’s big show rehearsal need to be so g-d long? He’s not important!), it’s still a sweet, good-natured show and a nice time. The three main characters are likable and relatively interesting, and there are enough great songs to keep this moving. Two ladies in the supporting cast, who get to show off as night club singers and actors in the preacher’s show, are incredible vocalists and it’s a real treat to hear them sing, even though the night club was repeated over and over to be a jazz club and none of the music was jazz. It’s a solid production, but I don’t think there’s any way to cover up the flaws.
Violet is playing at the Charing Cross Theatre (under the arches by Embankment) until April 6. They said it was 90 minutes, one act, but it was an hour 50 minutes!!! Were they trying to make us feel like we were on the bus and couldn’t stop for a bathroom?! It says now that it’s 100 minutes but like still that is inaccurate.