Violet at the Nashville Repertory:
A Victorious Final Show
Violet is a straightforward musical about a young woman hoping a faith healer can heal her of a disfiguring facial scar. She travels across the south by bus in 1964, meeting people and learning to see worth in herself and others that’s more than skin-deep. Based on a short story by Doris Betts, it was adapted into an Off-Broadway show in 1997 and has since been performed on Broadway. It is simple, funny and hopeful. It’s a solid 90’s show, and I can’t imagine it being performed better than the Nashville Repertory Theatre did on opening night, May 12.
It is performed with the full orchestration of the original musical, and the sound is full and colorful. Besides having the standard Broadway instrumentation, it features varied guitars, banjo, mandolin, and more. The music travels with the characters, moving through different genres: folksy, classic country radio, Memphis music hall, gospel, and 90’s Broadway sound. Some microphone effects are used for diegetic singing, which adds to the performance.
The Andrew Johnson theater at TPAC doesn’t have a pit, so the musicians are set behind the stage, their heads silhouetted against the backdrop like the orchestra in Disney’s Fantasia. Like the rest of the staging, lighting, props, and costumes, this is part of a perfect balance.
As the play is about inner beauty versus outer beauty, I thought it is an interesting choice that they don’t put any scar makeup on Violet. The Nashville Repertory’s study guide stated that the original staging of the show deliberately refrained from scar makeup. That makes it easy for the audience to see past Violet’s scar, and it emphasizes how she’s more bothered by it than anyone else is. Part of me wondered if I might have empathized more with her genuine pain if I could have seen it, and if it could have been a helpful challenge for the audience, but maybe I just wanted to see a cool scar.
The main trio of actors, Violet and two soldiers she meets on the way, Flick and Monty, have excellent chemistry with each other. The characters argue and tease each other a lot, and it would be easy for this to become grating. Instead, they are funny, likable, and sympathetic. Kelsey Brodeur is an earnest Violet, avoiding entitled protagonist syndrome while not shying away from her character’s flaws. She is hilarious in her performance in “All to Pieces,” the song where she cherry-picks facial features from celebrity magazines while being teased by the soldiers. Mike Sallee Jr. is Flick, who doesn’t have a scar but goes through life being judged by the color of his skin. The printed program had a different actor listed, but a bookmarked-sized insert gave the cast bio for Mike Sallee Jr. It didn’t state if this was a last-minute change or had happened early in the rehearsal process, but by the performance Sallee gave opening night, it felt as if he had been there from the beginning. His Flick has great rapport with Violet and Monty, and his performance in ensemble songs meshes perfectly. Nathan Quay Thomas is a charming Monty, the innocent bad boy soldier. He balances Monty’s character well, so that the teasing doesn’t feel mean, and Monty’s rare moments of seriousness are naively sincere.
There are flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and her girlhood self appears several times throughout the play, sometimes in flashbacks, other times in dreams, but my favorite song with her, “The Luck of the Draw,” is a parallel scene, where both Violets share the stage, adult Violet playing poker while young Violet is taught poker by her dad. Riley West made a likable young Violet.
Every cast member sang well and with good voices, but the woman that blew me away was Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva as a soloist in the faith healer’s choir. She has a strong, beautiful voice. Her solo in the gospel number “Raise me Up” is in a scene mocking smarmy faith healers, but when she sang on opening night it felt like Sunday morning and Aretha Franklin must have been humming in her grave. The faith healing preacher is played by Ryan Greenawalt, who has an obvious blast sermonizing. Beth Anne Musiker plays a sweet old lady and a hooker with comedic skill, and Piper Jones performs beautifully as a music hall singer.
Tracey Copeland-Halter directs a balanced and enthusiastic musical for the Nashville Repertory Theatre. It’s a victorious end to their 22/23 season and it has me looking forward to their next season with high expectations.