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REVIEW: Violet (Yellow Tree Theatre)

David Murray and Jessica Lind Peterson in Yellow Tree Theatre’s production of Violet. Photo by Justin Cox Photography.

For the final production of its eighth season, Yellow Tree Theatre presents a very satisfying production of Violet. This musical is based upon Doris Betts’ short story The Ugliest Pilgrim (her most-printed short story) and features music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Brian Crawley. This story is fertile stuff: The Ugliest Pilgrim was adapted into an Academy Award-winning short film in 1981 before becoming the basis for the 1997 musical of the same name. Violet won an Obie Award, the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical (the 2014 Broadway production picked up 4 Tony nominations). Since composing the music for Violet, Tesori has become known for her later musical scores for shows such as Carolina, or Change and Fun Home, for which she won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Original Score (along with lyricist Lisa Kron).

Violet is set in the Deep South in 1964 and centers on a young woman named Violet. When she was a teenager, Violet’s face was horribly disfigured when her father’s ax blade went sailing into her cheek. Consequently, she has been the object of ridicule and pity growing up leaving her alienated from all but her father. Violet sees a preacher on television who can heal the sick and disabled. She decides that this preacher can heal her face and even give her “movie star” looks. Following her father’s death, Violet saves up her money to take a bus trip from her farm in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the preacher tapes his show.  The musical begins at the start of her journey and focuses on her bus travels and her personal growth along the way. There are frequent flashbacks to when Violet was injured as a teenager, with both the teenage Violet (Jordan McDonnell) and the adult Violet (Jessica Lind Peterson) often onstage at the same time.

Violet meets two soldiers on her journey: one black named Flick and the other white named Monty. Reflecting the attitudes of the era, she thoughtlessly tells Flick that she would rather have her scar than his black skin. Despite this rocky beginning, she becomes friends with both…while also sleeping with one and falling in love with the other.

Tesori’s musical score shows multiple influences including country, gospel, and R&B. Music Director Kyle Picha does a masterful job of weaving the music performed by musicians behind the stage with the singing, never letting the musicians overpower the singers. One of the highlights of the first half of the show is the enjoyable tune “Luck of the Draw,” in which both the teenage Violet and the adult Violet share the song while playing cards with their respective partners. In the second half of the show, the highlight is the energetic rendition of “Raise Me Up” performed by the choir on the preacher’s television show.

Under the direction of Sean Byrd, this production is distinguished by the uniformly fine level of singing. The most notable among the singers include Jordan McDonnell as the teenage Violet and Jessica Lind Peterson as the adult Violet. The two blend their voices remarkably well in their shared songs. Jamaica Meyer as the Gospel choir leader brings an amazing energy to her performance. Adam Hummel as Violet’s father, Mathias Becker as Monty and David L. Murry, Jr. as Flick more than hold their own in their musical numbers. But in the small role of the Preacher, Peter Middlecamp steals all the attention whenever he is on stage with his comic timing and high energy.

Yellow Tree Theatre is located in Osseo, which is closer than most people think. If you have never been to Downtown Osseo, this production of Violet is a great incentive to make the journey.

Violet plays through May 8 at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, MN. 

Bev Wolfe