From the moment the spiritually and physically scarred heroine boards that Tulsa-bound Greyhound bus in “Violet,” the slight and earnest gospel rock musical that formally opened Wednesday night at Ford’s Theatre, a spectator has to believe wholeheartedly in the redemptive possibilities awaiting embittered young Violet at the other end of her trek.
Everything hinges on our fond hopes for Violet because the quest for personal healing at the heart of the show is ultimately supposed to make us feel consoled, help us view Violet’s story as a guide to what are truly the right places to look for relief from psychic pain.
The essential problem in this buoyantly sung revival of the ’90s off-Broadway musical by Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori is that it fails to activate an audience’s compassion and convince us all to sign up emotionally for that ride. This is partly attributable to the restlessness engendered by a character-driven story short on both urgency and humor. But it’s also because something has yet to be released in the central performance of Erin Driscoll, who evinces all of Violet’s anger and too little of her vulnerability.
Director Jeff Calhoun’s production successfully bottles a certain languorous hostility in the American South in 1964, when the work, derived from a short story, Doris Betts’s “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” takes place. In brief spurts, too, Tesori’s impassioned melodies capture the poignancy of Violet’s self-disgust — born of a childhood accident that disfigured her face — as well as of the yearning for her by a black soldier, Flick (Kevin McAllister), who is just as accustomed to harsh judgments based solely on appearance.
But the allusions to Violet’s trauma, underlined in flashbacks featuring a younger Violet (Lauren Williams) and her ill-equipped, backwoods father (Bobby Smith), mire the musical in episodes that do not deepen our understanding of Violet so much as reiterate her obvious despair. (That neither Driscoll nor Williams is actually made up with the scar seems calculated to have us ponder its metaphysical significance.) At a duration of more than two hours, the two-act show comes to feel as though it is indeed a bus you’re stuck on for too long.
It’s telling that even as “Violet” begins its run at Ford’s, another revival of the musical — originally produced off-Broadway in 1997 — is being readied for Broadway, with a serious new focus on the issue of its running time. For that forthcoming revival at Roundabout Theatre Company, starring Sutton Foster, Tesori and Crawley are reducing the show to one act, which seems a mightily worthwhile endeavor. Among other drags on the evening’s rhythm: the break midway through the show comes across as wanly arbitrary and weirdly interruptive; the theatrical equivalent of a dropped cellphone call.
As Tesori herself has noted in explaining the structural rethinking, “Violet” has no “B” story; it takes a direct narrative route from Spruce Pine, N.C., the home town Violet leaves behind on an Oz-like pilgrimage to Tulsa, where she hopes to waylay a wizard of a televangelist (an ideally cast Gregory Maheu) who will pray her scar away. The more authentic healing spirit, though, is Flick, whom Violet meets on the bus along with his army buddy Monty (James Gardiner), the
faster-talking character who aims to make Violet his conquest for a night.
Disconcertingly, Calhoun has not managed to build into the performances of Driscoll, McAllister and Gardiner the psychological latticework that would make us eager to dissect what’s going on and what comes next. As much as you need to cheer on Violet to move past her fixation on her looks, you have to be invested in her choosing the gentler soldier, the one who knows more than his share about scars.
Driscoll was the funny kewpie-doll ingénue of Signature Theatre’s “Urinetown” several years ago and, more recently, a warm focal point of “Spin,” the musical comedy based on a hit Korean movie that had a test run at Signature over the summer. She has the pleasing power for “Violet’s” ballads, such as the plaintive “All to Pieces” and the aspirational “On My Way.” And although through her we experience the anguish that compels Violet to construct a fortress around herself, the softer side that would indicate those walls could be torn down is not apparent.
McAllister does sweet and potent justice to Flick’s songs, especially “Let it Sing,” but the most memorable solo belongs to Kellee Knighten Hough. She plays the tiny role of a gospel choir member in the predictable sequence in the evangelist’s church. Given a spotlight moment for the heaven-
oriented number “Raise Me Up,” Hough sings the devil out of it.
Tobin Ost’s flexible set pieces for the bus are some of the smartest I’ve seen on the Ford’s stage, and the efforts of costume designer Wade Laboissonniere and lighting designer Michael Gilliam contribute excellently to the production’s stark ’60s look and feel. The director’s use of Aaron Rhyne’s jagged-edged projections to establish time and place deserves bonus points, too.
One could wish, though, for an excursion that exhilaratingly wrenched your gut rather than lugubriously punched your ticket.
book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Sets, Tobin Ost; music direction, Jay Crowder; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, David Budries; projections, Aaron Rhyne; dialects, Susanne Sulby. With Nova Y. Payton, Stephen F. Schmidt, Amy McWilliams, Madeline Botteri, Chris Sizemore. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets, $15-$62. Through Feb. 23 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 800-982-2787 or visit www.fords.org.