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Bluesy "Violet" doesn't quite blossom

Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Danielle Philapil, Tanika Baptiste, Jon-David Randle, Juliana Lustenader, and Jourdán Olivier-Verdé in Bay Area Musicals' production of  Violet . Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Danielle Philapil, Tanika Baptiste, Jon-David Randle, Juliana Lustenader, and Jourdán Olivier-Verdé in Bay Area Musicals' production of Violet. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

A small-town girl hops on a Greyhound bus to the big city, singing in a sunny, optimistic voice about how she’s “on her way.” She has big dreams, she’s going out to chase them, and “won’t ‘cha be surprised” when she comes back!

But Violet, now being staged at the Alcazar Theatre by Bay Area Musicals, puts several twists on this familiar musical-comedy setup. The heroine isn’t a sugar-and-spice ingénue, but a tough, oddball outcast. The big city she’s bound for isn’t New York or Hollywood, but Tulsa, Oklahoma. And the reason she’s going there is to see a television faith healer, who she believes can remove the grotesque, disfiguring scar on the left side of her face.

So, like a good musical-theater protagonist, Violet (Juliana Lustenader) has a clearly defined goal and a soaring “I Want” song. But how can you get on board for her journey when her hopes seem naïve and delusional from the get-go? Contemporary San Francisco audiences distrust televangelists, and the show never offers a reason to think that Violet could receive her desired miracle. Thus, while Bay Area Musicals’ production is nicely cast, staged, and sung, I never got pulled in emotionally. Instead, I felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop—for the moment when this feisty but gullible young woman would get her illusions shattered and her heart broken.

The potential for heartbreak increases with the introduction of two soldiers who tease and flirt with Violet: cocky Caucasian Monty (Jack O’Reilly) and watchful African-American Flick (Jon-David Randle). Randle’s soulful riffing on his solo “Let It Sing” got massive applause, but I was almost more impressed by his vocal control during the song’s quiet, a cappella first verse. However, there’s something odd about the script’s treatment of Flick’s race. Sometimes, it draws parallels between how Flick is ostracized for his skin color and how Violet is ostracized for her scar; at other times, it glosses over the deeply transgressive nature of an interracial romance in the rural South, three years before Loving vs. Virginia.

As is traditional for this show, the leading actress performs the role of Violet bare-faced, without using stage makeup to create a scar. This character is something of a departure for Juliana Lustenader, whose flaxen-haired good looks mean that she is often cast as a more typical ingénue. (For instance, in a few months, she will appear in the Custom Made Theatre’s production of Passion, another musical about the shame and sorrow of being an ugly woman—but she will be playing the conventionally attractive Clara, not the disfigured and sickly Fosca.) Still, she ably conveys Violet’s mix of bravado and vulnerability. And her experience in the indie-folk duo Baird & Beluga means that Violet’s Appalachian-style music sounds right at home in her voice.

Indeed, composer Jeanine Tesori has capitalized on Violet’s 1964 Deep South setting to write a lively score full of country, blues, and gospel songs, with fiddle and banjo prominent in the orchestrations. The ensemble’s contributions include strong Memphis-blues belting from Andrea Dennison-Laufer and gospel shouting from Tanika Baptiste. There is also some beautiful harmonizing between Lustenader and 12-year-old Miranda Long, playing Violet as a child.

Dyan McBride’s staging clearly defines the different segments of Violet’s bus journey using a turntable and a few simple set pieces. However, the Alcazar Theatre has a very wide stage, and people sitting far to the side may find themselves craning their necks to catch actions that happen on the other side of the stage.

Bay Area Musicals’ production of Violet is at the Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco through March 17. Tickets and more information here.