Making ugly

Making ugly

27 March 2018

An acting and singing tour de force isn't enough to redeem Violet's problematic plot, says Joanna Trainor

The performers in Violet have got pipes. Then you find out that nearly half the cast are just 16 – SIXTEEN – and it simultaneously blows you away and leaves you a little depressed about your own singing skills at that age.

The little-known Brian Cawley and Jeanine Tesori musical tells the story of a young woman who has been scarred* in a terrible axe accident and travels across the country to get a faith healer to fix her face. On her journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma, Violet meets two soldiers who are maybe on their way to Vietnam; one of whom, Flick, is African American. Billy Nevers who plays him is outstanding. Nevers captures all of Flick’s mannerisms, and the insecurities that plague a young man who may be on his way to certain death.

There are problems with the blocking that could easily be fixed by making it end-on rather than traverse. There’s no need for every character at the card game to be seated with their back to the audience. The bus also causes its own issues, as some characters are very strict about where they get on and off, and others dance up and down the aisle, through the window and on the bonnet. It’s also a little disturbing to hear an actor as young as 17 use the n-word, as is the stereotyping of the black characters.

Violet ran for less than five months on Broadway in 2014, because even Sutton Foster playing the lead role can’t make up for the show’s questionable storyline. Yes, it’s set in the 1960s in America and race relations were fraught to say the least, but comparing a disfiguring facial scar to being African American just doesn’t read right, not in the 1990s and definitely not in 2018. Violet and Flick’s relationship is born out of the fact they are shunned by society, but are able to see each other for who they really are. A classic love story, but in this context what it is essentially saying is that a devastating axe injury is akin to being a person of colour.

Theatre should reflect our stories, and we shouldn’t shy away from performing parts of history that we are ashamed of. But Violet doesn’t do anything important with it. A “you’re beautiful inside” romantic ending doesn’t feel appropriate when the supposed "ugly" is black skin.

These student performers could easily tackle any number of musical theatre shows with the talent they’re armed with, so Violet seems an odd choice. Not that it doesn’t show off the actors’ skills: Madeleine Ambus as the older Violet is an absolute powerhouse. Her accent never wavers, and her voice is incredible, exploding through the space.

You probably won't want to add the Violet soundtrack to your ultimate musicals playlist, but you’ll definitely be seeing these actors on a stage again.  

*I definitely didn’t spend the first 10 minutes desperately looking for her scar before realising there wasn’t one, or anything.

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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato