No Shrinking “Violet” at NKU
Review by Liz Eichler
An award winning musical that you’ve never seen in production? Yes please! Theatre people–go see Violet at NKU. Sutton Foster was nominated for numerous awards when it hit Broadway in 2014. Violet is the perfect vehicle for NKU’s Ellie O’Hara, who has that perky, plucky, girl-next-door quality reminiscent of Foster as she carries this charming production.
Violet (O’Hara) is a young woman, determined to get her disfiguring scar healed by a TV preacher, so she buys a bus ticket from Spruce Pine, NC to Tulsa, OK and shares her story with a number of people she meets on the bus. “On My Way” is full of heart as Violet dreams of a better life, not one in which people only see the facial scar that transformed her life at 13 (Young Vi is played by Hailey Watson). Set in 1964, race relations and the South have a prominent role in the conversation. On her journey she meets two soldiers, Flick (Jeremiah Savon Jackson), a black sargeant and Monty (Chris Monell), a younger cocky corporal, and they play poker, a game her dad taught her well (“Luck of the Draw”). The trio becomes friendly as they travel together and share stories. “All to Pieces” is well done, when she shares the parts of famous actresses she wants the preacher to replace (Cyd Charisse’s nose, Ursula Andress legs, Elke summer’s hair, etc.). Their relationships take a turn when they stop at a boarding house in Memphis and both gentlemen wonder if they have a chance with Violet. They visit a dancehall, have a little liquor, and yes, relationships change.
Eventually, due to her blind faith and laser focus on religion as a savior, Violet sees her televangelist, fights her demons, reunites with the soldiers and finds her future with one.
The musical is based on the book “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts. Music by Jeanine Tesori and Lyrics and Book by Brian Crawley, it won New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Musical award in 1997. It requires a really powerful performer to play Violet, and NKU’s Ellie O’Hara brings her heart, soul and beautiful voice into the role.
The show is elevated by the music. A live band peeks out behind the slats of the stage fencing, and their sound is vibrant and crisp. Music Director Scott Buzza creates amazing choral harmonies which fill the auditorium. “Who’ll Be the One (If not me)” is one of the highlights as three players (Tre Taylor, Zachary Farmer and Sylas Craven) do a beautiful job as the Radio Trio. The music has folk songs, gospel, soul, a bit of early ‘60’s rock and Broadway ballads. “Last Time I Came to Memphis” is one of Monty’s star vehicles, and “Let It Sing” is one of Flick’s.
While the opening scene needs more articulation, the performers handle their roles well. Some are believable age actors (Rachel Gardner and Sylas Craven). As the Preacher, Craven pulls out the stops and is a larger than life personality.
The costumes (Ronnie Chamberlain) include the small things of the early 60’s–stockings, gloves and slips–things foreign to most Gen Z performers. The set (Tao Wong) is a well-balanced jagged series of fencing, that could be anywhere and everywhere. The treatment of the buses and the bus station was all that was needed, with costumes and chairs evoking the bus. Lighting (Chanelle Dau Pino) is colorful and full of brights and shadows, to build imagery, according to the director’s notes. Choreography (Jeri Deckard Gatch) paints the stage with the country stylings of Memphis, 1960’s dance hall, and gospel choir.
Violet should be seen by all theatre fans if you missed its short stint on Broadway. This passion-filled musical is a testament to overcoming our fears–whether imposed by society or ourselves, and that we will truly be able to live our best lives when we let go of the past. Violet runs September 23 to October 2 at NKU’s Corbett Theatre. Get tickets HERE.
Liz Eichler has a BA and MTA in Theatre, and an MBA in Marketing. She’s been both a Professional Costumer and Marketer, and has taught at multiple colleges and universities in multiple states for over 20 years. Liz is a past-president of LCT and has been involved for over 10 years.