Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 6 April 2019
Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori (who is also behind the music in Caroline or, Change – Tony Kushner’s sixties set tale currently on at The Playhouse) is based on Doris Bett’s The Ugliest Pilgrim. At first, this doesn’t feel like a life-affirming musical. Violet, played by Kaisa Hammarlund, is badly scarred after a childhood accident and inspired by a TV preacher she heads across the south from North Carolina to Oklahoma to be healed and become beautiful.
Violet is a coming of age tale, contrasting her childhood with her father (Kieran Crook) and her younger self (Amy Mepham). Shuntaro Fujita’s direction gives a real sense of the American South, it feels hot, it feels hazy in combination with Howard Hudson’s lighting design (the flashback scenes have a grey tone along with Jonathan Lipman’s strong costume design) and her belated awakening in her friendship with Flick (Jay Marsh) and Monty (Matthew Harvey), along with all the people she meets on her Greyhound bus journey.
As a piece, it isn’t afraid to confront the ugly truth of the American south, such as when Violet states she would rather be a disfigured white woman than a black man. Morgan Large’s set design is interesting, with its traverse staging and rotating stage that makes the audience feel it is on a journey
There are some really great performances from the company. I particularly enjoyed Kenneth Avery-Clark as the preacher who is forced to admit he cannot work miracles when Violet finally meets him.
As a musical I struggled with Violet, the story is pleasant enough but there is nothing to build to, we can hope that Violet accepts herself but it is hardly the dramatic conclusion these performances deserve. Hammarlund, after winning rave reviews in Fun Home, proves she is more than a one-hit wonder and one of the most exciting and skilled talents to grace the London stage. Jay Marsh is a real talent who I expect to see lots of in the future.
The issue is that is unsure whether it wants to take on an operatic approach to the story and much of the emotion and warmth comes from the songs but ultimately as much as songs like ‘Raise Me Up’ and ‘Bring me to Light’ felt inspiring and rich they come a little too late and I struggled to differentiate between the musical numbers. It just feels there is something in the source material that is lacking but nonetheless is still a strong and enjoyable production.
Violet is a warm, considerate musical with a lot to say about the past and some real faces of the future to look out for.