Violet has ‘heart’ by the bucketload – with a captivating central performance, joyful score and thrilling ensemble vocals. Though the precision or urgency of Caroline, or Change isn’t quite there (and comparisons between shows are inevitable at the moment), it’s still an offbeat gem of a production well worth your time.
The UK premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet transforms the Charing Cross Theatre into a configuration which entirely suits the space. Promoted as ‘traverse’ but strictly thrust if you include the couple of balcony seats, the refit liberates what previously seemed to be an intensely awkward auditorium – still allowing for ample room for high production values (as Morgan Large’s effective set design illustrates) but simultaneously feeling far more intimate and dynamic than it ever did previously.
I’ve never seen the venue look so good in fact (it’s like a second Donmar), and hope the success of the reshuffling paves the way for more (all?) of the space’s future programming to follow suit.
On a London ‘roll’ after the late successes of Fun Home or Caroline, or Change, Tesori’s score for Violet actually predates both, and feels peppier and poppier (more akin to her compositions for Shrek). She weaves a joyful number of diverse American musical styles into the one-act piece; we’re treated to everything from gospel to rocky ballads, to bluegrass, and (perhaps least surprisingly, given our central character) ample country and folk.
As the titular protagonist, Kaisa Hammarlund’s Violet is captivating, assured and full of warm, infectious energy. Prompted to voyage from North Caroline to Oklahoma on Greyhounds (in the hope a TV conman can ‘cure’ her facial disfigurement), we follow her spiritual journey to feeling beautiful (experiencing flashbacks from her past and meeting a series of potential suitors on the way).
When it’s good, it’s really really good. The noise generated by the ensemble in the early production number, ‘On My Way’, is downright astonishing and electric (you don’t want it to end). Violet’s ‘Look At Me’ is powerfully performed – and Jay Marsh’s outstanding vocals during ‘Let It Sing’ really make you feel lucky to have discovered this offbeat gem.
There’s unmistakable pacing issues though: the static staging of ‘Luck of the Draw’ loses the momentum established by the two proceeding company numbers – and ‘Let It Sing’ is followed by a particularly clunky post-coital scene, where proceedings grind to a severe halt (to an extent where I did wonder whether a Monty understudy was on, due to how unconfident he seemed with what line came next…maybe it was just acting but I genuinely wasn’t convinced).
Like its central character, Violet has ‘heart’ by the bucketload – though not quite the precision, wry sense of humour or urgency of Caroline, or Change. It’s absolutely worth your time, but just be prepared for a full-on sound design (those speakers are being given a run for their money…I have no problem with being deafened but some people might!).