There’s a breath of fresh air on stage at MusicalFare right now. It’s a musical that’s never been seen in Western New York and one you probably have never heard of, despite it debuting off-Broadway 20 years ago. It’s called “Violet,” and in a beautiful new production from director Susan Drozd, it offers a much-needed salve.
By its closing number, I felt like I had taken a bath, or maybe a hike. It moves slowly, nearly half of it taking place on a moving bus, its passengers singing in the seating position, but it packs a punch. Characters develop like a Polaroid, coming into focus and finding their color the longer they sit. It is 1964, and in the south, where this bus is traveling, tensions of war and race are high.
But for Violet, there are still dreams to chase.
She’s en route to meet an evangelical Christian minister who she hopes will heal a facial scar that’s haunted her since a childhood accident. Of course, her deeper-rooted emotional scars are the real source of her pain. She meets two soldiers along the way, Flick and Monty, who become her much-needed support and offer an entrée into maturity.
Brian Crawley’s libretto brings these characters together in a beautifully normal way. We interact with countless strangers on a regular basis, and rarely do we engage with them, let alone are we changed by them. There’s much to mine here. (The show is based on Doris Betts’s short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim.”) But these new relationships are fleeting, passing from one bus stop to the next. We are all only an introduction.
Crawley’s second act suffers the same fate, exiting the cozy bus and entering the loneliness of a wider, harsher world. That transition makes sense, but Crawley’s script makes sudden turns that feel alienating and disorienting. In some ways, the first and second acts feel like two different versions of the same story. Part of me wished we could stay on the bus forever, never seeing Violet’s eventual arrival at the church revival. Her catharsis feels like a letdown.
Another (more favorable) wrinkle in the storytelling is the fact that we, as the audience, cannot see Violet’s scar. It’s invisible to us, a searing reminder of the larger lesson in beauty. That you may confuse this direction for faulty stage makeup is part of its design; lean in, look closer, try to find the imperfections. You can’t.
These are some of the many beautiful layers this show—and Drozd’s tender, soulful staging—spends so much of its time revealing. As confined as its action is, it feels like a film. Chris Cavanagh’s gloriously subtle projections cast a realistic reflection of the world passing us by.
At the nucleus of this production’s heart and power, however, is Michele Marie Roberts’s performance as Violet. We’ve seen Roberts handle many fierce, opinionated, staunch women. (Her turn as Eva Peron in last summer’s “Evita” nearly tore her balcony down.) But as Violet, Roberts is something much more impressive than a raging flower. Her vulnerability blooms at the most unexpected moments, giving full reactions in real time.
In contrast, her two primary scene partners, Dudney Joseph, Jr. and Patrick Cameron, too often exist only in response to Violet, rather than standing in their own roles. The three form a strong bond that pays off, but they feel more like big brothers rather than possible (spoiler alert?) lovers.
As Young Violet, Maria Farugia gives a commanding performance, somehow managing to both echo and prescribe the Violet that Roberts eventually portrays. This marks Farugia’s professional debut, and while there are small spots to polish and ease into, her performance on opening night handily carried a large chunk of adult Violet’s emotional backdrop.
Roberts stretches herself with this role, and in doing so, brings not only Tesori’s lusciously American score to stunning life, but breathes new hope into anyone watching who has ever felt less-than. It’s a striking performance that I won’t soon forget.
★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4)
Through Dec. 3 at MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St. (Daemen College), Amherst. Times are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. (No show on Nov. 23). Tickets are $44. Info: musicalfare.com, 839-8540