Before the advent of television and the growth of televangelist greats like Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen, Evangelist preachers would tour all over the United States, spreading the word of God and performing miracle cures that garnered even more attention for their preaching. Just as televised fame was taking over the performance of prayer, a young woman sought out a miracle healer to take away her pain and make her future bright again.
Twelve years ago, when Violet (Chelsea Taylor) was just a child (young Violet played by Taylor Swan), she was injured in an accident that left her with a large scar on her face. Since then, she’s been ostracised by classmates (Isaac Downey), pitied by strangers, and made fearful of ever finding someone who could really love her. Now that her father (Trent Gardiner) has passed away, Violet plans a trip to Tulsa to see a miraculous healing preacher (Sam Howes) who will take away her scar and open up a different future for her. On the trip, though, she becomes fast friends with a pair of cheeky soldiers Flick (Lindford Gilmour) and Monty (Tommy Green) who help her imagine a different life than the one she has on her family’s mountain farm in Spruce Pine.
The musical, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, is based on a 1969 short story by Doris Betts called “The Ugliest Pilgrim”. The gothic genre and short story form of the original material goes a long way to explain the rather drawn out and unrelentingly grim tone of the Violet adaptation. Despite a structure that interspersed flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and dreamy conversations with her father, the main plot of a woman on a bus trip with two strangers was repetitive and tedious with little more than conversation, and song, about the characters’ dreams to carry the story along. At the same time, the musical touched on concerns of racism in 1960s America, the looming threat of the Vietnam War, and discrimination experienced by disabled people and people with facial difference, with even subtler hints at how this might affect women specifically, but without directly engaging with either the context or consequences for the characters. This left the story feeling hollow and unsatisfactory overall.
That being said, this production, under the direction of Kathryn Thomas and musical direction of Stephen Dula, had heart and a particular investment in the music that created atmosphere in the absence of story. Thomas’s set design placed a mid-century modern-inspired column centre stage that symbolised a stage, street, and the all-important bus alongside side-settings of a milk bar and pastel signpost signalling the journey ahead. The lighting design, also by Thomas, divided up the large stage space and added needed depth to turn the pastel colour palette into a grittier Beale Street dive bar. The music came with a variety of influences across soul, gospel, blues, and folk which were expertly controlled by Dula on keyboard and directing the live band of Matt Simmonds on drums, Bonita Silva on violin, and Dom Parker on bass. Along with Thomas’s country costuming of mixed florals and plaids, the music contributed greatly to constructing a sense of space and time, bringing these southern states to the Sydney stage.
Taylor’s performance as Violet was charming, especially as she held her own against the men in both poker and matters of the heart. But her strength and integrity made other aspects of her characterisation, such as her naivety in seeking out a miracle cure from a travelling preacher, harder to believe. Vocally, both her and her younger counterpart Swan added a delicate, pretty quality to their performances of Violet which created a sense of innocence to clash against the brasher male vocalists. Green impressed the audience with a gutsy performance of “Last Time I Came to Memphis” and Miriam Rihani added texture to the seedy town as a street walker in “Anyone Would Do”. But it was the soulful, arms-to-the-sky rendition of “Raise Me Up” by the preacher’s gospel choir, led by Lucy Koschel, that really tickled the audience for its earnest depiction of Evangelical celebratory group worship.
There probably isn’t a person alive who hasn’t savoured a shooting star, birthday candle, or seeded dandelion for the wish it afforded them; the opportunity to ask for anything and possibly change your life. Violet considers the desperate hope at the centre of a young woman’s wish for a life without a facial difference while reaching for a similar conclusion to Molly Sweeney: the problem is how the world sees you, not with you yourself. Though the message here was a long time coming and somewhat clumsily intertwined with issues of race, it was a sweet and sentimental story.
Violet is running at St Aidan’s from May 14th – 29th
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