Diamonds in the rough

Diamonds in the rough

27 March 2018

Daniella Harrison feels conflicted by the crystal clear performances buried in Violet's trite narrative

I feel really odd reviewing this show because the performers in it are largely under eighteen. I don't know why this makes me feel odd, but it does. Maybe it’s because I know exactly how I would have felt if someone had reviewed any of my performances at that age: elated, impressed, deflated, upset. This is not me setting up that I am going to slate the performance —on the contrary, I loved Violet —but that my awareness of the performers’ ages made me think of the show in a different way, and makes me question how I write when I talk about performers.

ArtsEd Sixth Form musical theatre group perform Violet, a little-known musical written by Jeanine Tesori. This performance marks only the second licensed performance of this show in the UK, and was first performed on Broadway in 2014, closing after five months.

The show is based on Doris Betts’ short story The Ugliest Pilgrim. It follows Violet, a young woman who – due to an axe accident when she was a child – has a facial disfigurement. Violet, thanks to the money her father left her when he died, is on a pilgrimage to Oklahoma to seek out a preacher to heal her scarred face. Along the way, she meets two soldiers, Flick and Monty, who accompany her for the rest of her travels. A bit like The Wizard of Oz, I suppose.

The main faults I’ve found in this show are from the actual writing itself. Opportunities for character development are few and far between and the overall message of the show – finding beauty inside rather than the outside – is incredibly clich├ęd. But, hey, it is a musical after all. Of course, this company has no hand in the script itself.

The first thing to mention about this production is that these performers are phenomenal. For their age, yes, but also just in general. Their voices are clear and strong; every single note is hit. I could not find a discernible fault in their American accents, either. Madeline Ambus, playing Violet, is a very strong lead and her voice is clear and sweet. Playing the younger Violet is Holly Hazelton, who is full of infectious energy and carries the American accent right through to her singing voice. Standing out, though, is Chrissie Bhima’s outstanding vocals in the number "Raise Me Up".

The performance is in traverse, which is perhaps an unusual choice for a musical. I think of musical theatre’s primary aim as to connect with the audience through song, and that having the audience actually see you singing and working through your emotions in that song is an important part of that. Sometimes I felt isolated with actors’ backs towards me, and I missed a few bits of dialogue because of this set-up, though perhaps this also meant I was getting things other audience members might have been missing.

Despite this setup, the show is one which has pretty faultless performances. This cast can do more than just sing.

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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca