Violet is a musical based on a 1969 short story called “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by North Carolina writer Doris Betts that was first adapted into a musical in 1981. Betts' stories have a hard edge, and, like so much of Southern literature, depend on a deep understanding of place. But don’t let the beauty of the western mountains of North Carolina fool you: There are big problems in these hills, and the titular Violet has a lot of them. As in, she’s from a poor mountain town called Spruce Pine, misses her dead mother, and, oh yeah, has a major facial deformity due to an accident involving an ax.
It’s not easy to adapt certain kinds of literary drama in prose to the stage, much less to a full-fledged musical. Here the performances of the songs are good—often superlative. Teresa Zimmerman is a formidable lead, and I really loved hearing her sing, even though the adaptation does not provide her the development necessary to really identify with her bus journey from Spruce Pine to Tulsa, so she can meet a television evangelist who can “cure” her scarred face. The problem is that there is no context for audiences to understand her faith in faith—only some odd flashbacks to her childhood as Young Violet (Kelly Lomonte) that give background to her biography, but not so much her psyche.
Violet is, as Director Marley Singletary explains, “on a quest for beauty and acceptance amidst the image-obsessed and changing landscape of 1964.” But the dated references to beauty icons of this era might be lost on much of the audience, and the decision to have Violet’s scar invisible to the audience robs us of the spectacle of her physical state and her concomitant psychological and spiritual despair. Zimmerman is very pretty—even in her modest clothes and unkempt hair—so Violet’s disfigurement seems unreal to the audience, making it harder to comprehend her pain. And catchy tunes like “Water in the Well” and “On My Way” seem too upbeat for the storyline and undercut the pathos of Violet’s journey. The minute you get an upbeat tune you risk trivializing a serious story—it’s tricky business for sure.
Another issue is that there is a little too much going on in Brian Crawley’s book and lyrics, yet none of it seems to catch the flavor of Doris Betts’ vision of a young girl’s naïve desperation and meeting fellow passengers who don’t interpret Violet’s scarring as a debilitating, deal-breaking characteristic.
Violet’s real problem is not what the world sees when they glimpse her face; her problem is what goes on in her head. She meets an older woman who doesn’t really pay much attention to her scar, and then encounters soldiers Monty (Adam Gibbs—one of my favorite actors in Houston) and Flick (Derrick Brent II). She says some racist things to Flick and is gullible to Monty’s sexual advances, but the whole time you are trying to figure out how that adds up to anything that reveals more about her than her upbringing. And while I love hearing those guys sing, their presence in the musical is never developed enough to create high stakes for the audience. Who will Violet end up with? Not sure if it matters. Will her scar be fixed? Unlikely, but you knew that already.
Everything is a journey, but there must be a payoff for all that travel, and it is not clear what we’re supposed to get out of Violet’s trip that smacks of anything nearing an epiphany. It is a long haul punctuated by some good songs and some enjoyable choreography, but the songs overwhelm the need for more dialogue that would make us better understand Violet’s character. It is not just that she writes in a journal and plays poker—it is what she is observing, writing about, and gambling on, and it is almost impossible to translate that kind of interiority to the stage in a musical. The religion she is so counting on seems almost spoofed in this show, with the stereotypical preacher who complains that he is objectified as “a healing jukebox,” undercutting the very thing that supposedly motivates the main character. So, the audience is always kind of ambivalent, which is a hard emotion to sustain with enthusiasm.
What did work very well was some of the musical numbers, and that was because of some stellar musical talent—beginning with the band that was great, and the singing chops of Tye Locket and Jennifer Barrett. I wish they had had more stage time. I also enjoyed the physicality as well as singing of Adam Gibbs and Doug Atkins, who shined in multiple roles.
This is a strong ensemble cast, and they are directed well with material that is challenging to put together in a seamless way. I know: We should leave knowing that beauty comes from within, we should stand for something so we don’t fall for everything, and life is tragic whenever a woodchopping ax is on the property.
Queensbury Theatre has a lot of great talent—but the musical itself is not the best vehicle even for the most superlative artists. Violet’s scar, and the profound motivations that would make this journey more relatable, are submerged under a busy fare of ballads and gospel music and blues that is, like Violet herself, all over the map. Go for the music, and let that be the reason you get on the bus.
Thru Sept. 23. Tickets from $21. Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Ln. More info and tickets at queensburytheatre.org.