Overcoming ugly duckling syndrome with 'Violet'

Carly Blane (as Violet) and Malcolm Yancey (as Flick) in the SU Drama production of 'Violet.' Photo: Michael Davis Violet Who Syracuse University Where Storch Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St, Syracuse When Through April 28 Tickets $18 for adults; $16 for students and seniors Review by Eesha Patkar

“Close your eyes and let music set you free,” sang the Phantom in Phantom of The Opera. Musical numbers that come to life by the perfect blend of song and composition have an innate ability to give their audience a sense of catharthis. I don’t know anyone who didn’t cry at some point during Les Misérables or West Side Story–both tales of social struggle. SU Drama’s rendition of Violet at the Storch Theater at Syracuse Stage though, had all the bearings of a socially conscious tearjerker musical, but little delivery.

Set in 1964 against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, Violet tracks the story of a young woman horribly disfigured as a child by her father’s “wayward hatchet” that leaves a scar running from her nose all the way across her left cheek. Violet (played by senior Carly Blane and brilliant junior Lila Coogan as her younger self) journeys from her rural hometown of Spruce Pine, N.C. to Tulsa, Ok. in an impossibly wishful effort to seek healing from an enthusiastic Christian televangelist.

On her Greyhound bus journey, she meets Monty (senior Danny Harris Kornfeld), an annoying twerp of a soldier, and Flick (senior Malcolm Yancey), a self-effacing black sergeant from South Carolina. After an entire day spent exchanging clever barbs and retorts(“Question and Answer”), challenging each other to poker games  and confessing their hopes,dreams and fears (“All to Pieces,” “Let it Sing”), the trio disembark at Memphis, Tenn.for the night.

By now, Violet’s deliciously complex character has enamored both menFlick sees a kindred soul shunned by society for her looks, and even the doltish Monty realizes she is “different” from the rest. The combination of a little “hooch” and some rambunctious dancing leads Monty to Violet’s bed leaving Flick out in the cold.

In the following act, our good-natured trio hit a fork in their path. But not before Flick expresses his jealousy and regret (“Hard to Say Goodbye”) and Monty earnestly beseeches Violet to return to him (“Promise Me, Violet”). However, Violet’s eyes never waver from the prize and she alights at a chapel in Tulsa where the cast sings a rousing gospel choir (“Raise Me Up”) in a telecast production. The preacher (talented senior Christian Palmer in multiple roles) stirs up the audience with a hilariously parodied exhibition of religious zeal. An usher collecting offerings from the real, live audience lends a cute gimmicky touch to this over-the-top performance. But when Violet is turned away (as was expected), she is forced to confront her self-image issues that run far deeper than her skin.

The ideals of beauty have long been a subject of debate and criticism in our culture. The concept of a physical makeover being crucial to character development is deluded, but witnessed more times than is healthy. The green-hued Elphaba of Wicked and the “civilizing” transformation (or what I like to call “subjugation”) of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion have tried to teach us otherwise, and so does Violet. But it’s difficult to sympathize with her wanting “Jean Tierney eyes, or Ava Gardner’s eyebrows” in a repetitive refrain in this production. Blane’s Violet is not so much ugly looking, as she is just a tad unkempt. Her defensive attitude and bitterness at society for deriding her visage appears shallower each time she yearns for this mish-mash of body parts.

Christian Palmer as the longed after Preacher. Photo: Michael Davis

This musical originally composed in 1997 by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Brian Crawley based on Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” makes it plenty evident that Violet’s scar has rendered a trauma deeper than the surface and indubitably fractured her psyche, but the sentiment is suspect in this vivacious portrayal. So, when the ugly duckling finally realizes that she doesn’t need to be a swan to be a whole individual or find true love (also problematic), it’s anti-climactic and flat.  That is not to say Blane isn’t compelling. Her faith-shattering breakdown when she realizes she cannot be healed brings forth imagined confrontations with her father’s (senior Jordan Weagraff) spirit that are disturbingly convincing.

Same goes for Coogan, who is fascinating to watch as a young Violet in pigtails, overalls and a viscerally troubling angry scar, reaching out in desperation for the preacher’s curing hands on a television screen. With well-timed cues, the younger Violet and her father come in flashbacks to relate tidbits of her life, but none more cleverly executed than in “Luck of the Draw.”

The musical numbers take off with a great start, but flounder toward the end. The actors’ attempts at imbuing southern accents in the dialogue and songs detract from the musical delivery. Mia Michelle McClain’s enthused gospel number “Raise Me Up” and Coogan’s beautiful “Water in the Well” are by far the best.

A crucial aspect of this production is its inventive set design: a collage of wooden signs with the names of different towns emblazoned on them that conveniently light up at each stop in the journey. The descending structure of the bus segues neatly into a dais when needed, but creates an uneven spatial arrangement that render the choreography chaotic at times.

SU Drama’s production of Violet is sadly unconvincing, as is the title character’s need for Grace Kelly’s nose.