Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Violet, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(Neely Gevaart as Violet and Eugene Sumlin as Finch)

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who allow for a bit more diversity. Well, both kinds should go and see Violet, the Jeanine Tesori musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre.

As one of Crawley’s lyrics posits, “There are two kinds of people in the world/Some say yes and some say no.” And this show works at sorting them out after beginning with a horrific accident.

Thirteen-year-old Violet is walking through her backwoods yard in North Carolina when her dad’s axe head flies off the handle in mid-swing and slices a jagged scar across her face. Even though the accident is all mimed and the scar is never physically visible, it is omnipresent as Violet struggles to accept herself and others.

Composers and lyricists continue to defy logic and write musicals about the strangest and, on the surface, most unpleasant topics. And this one may top the list, at least until someone writes a singin’ and dancin’ epic about irritable bowel syndrome.

In any case Violet, now all grown up and on her own in 1964, is understandably obsessed with her appearance. So she is on a pilgrimage to see a televangelist faith healer in Oklahoma to make everything cosmetically (not to mention psychologically and spiritually) right. This journey rings absolutely true even though it may seem fanciful to some. In fact, I knew a fiercely intelligent woman, beset with multiple sclerosis, who went to see a “healing” preacher in Akron. Even her well-honed, skeptical mind was won over by the apparition of hope.

So is Violet’s, and as she travels she encounters two soldiers on the bus who each are attracted to her in somewhat different ways. Monty is a good ol’ boy who just wants to get in Violet’s pants while Flick, an African-American, seems to bond with her on a deeper level.

The story is fascinating and the music is lush and varied, combining gospel, country and blues into a beguiling quilt that is stitched together much more delicately than Violet’s face. Director Martin Friedman and musical director Jordan Cooper bring out the best in this talented cast.

As Violet, Neely Gevaart is absolutely wonderful, belting out the songs that need it and then tenderly handling a quiet piece, such as when she croons to Monty as they lie in bed in “Lay Down Your Head.” Gevaart looks and feels the part, providing enough edge to her role so that the disfiguring accident doesn’t come across as just a handy framing device.

Eric Fancher makes Monty a character who is more than just a lug who wants to get some, and Eugene Sumlin displays honesty and compassion as Finch, even though his singing voice isn’t as powerful as some others. In featured roles, Nicole Sumlin employs her rafter-shaking pipes to great effect in “Raise Me Up” and as the preacher, Robert Pierce is a pompous pompadour until he, also, shows a different and interesting facet.

Indeed, the characters and the music in Violet are both complex and believable, creating a seamless work that is fully satisfying. As Violet and Finch grow closer, two people being judged by their outward appearance, the play concludes by saying “Yes” to a happy ending that feels fully earned.

Through February 15 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 440-525-7034
Lakeland Community College Campus, just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306 in Kirtland.

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