Violet (Porthouse Theatre – Cuyahoga Falls, OH)

I’m a sucker for the unusual. A simple boy-meets-girl story isn’t always enough to keep me interested; girl disfigured with an axe blade to her face, on her way to see a faith healer? And it’s a musical set in the 1960s? Now we’re talking! The show I’m speaking of is Violet, based on the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, and it is a musical with music by Jeanine Tesori (she just won the Tony for Fun Home and also did Thoroughly Modern Millie) and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. In the show, Violet is a woman living with a scar down the side of her face from a childhood accident, and she is traveling from North Carolina to Oklahoma by bus to visit a faith healer she saw on television with the hope that he can rid her face of the disfigurement for which she has been ridiculed and ostracized. If it sounds like an unconventional premise for a musical, that’s because it is; it’s also so much more, examining how we all have lives marred with scars that we have to come to terms with – Violet’s just happens to be on her face.

Violet premiered off-Broadway for a brief run in 1997 that produced a beloved cast recording; an acclaimed Encores! Off-Center one-night event in 2013 led to the 2014 Broadway premiere starring Sutton Foster, for which another cast recording was made. I saw the 2014 Broadway production and had mixed feelings about it, though it was well-reviewed and nominated for many Tony Awards. Seeing it live didn’t affect me the same way as listening to the initial cast recording did, so I was excited to get the chance to re-evaluate the show at the Porthouse Theatre as part of the Kent State University summer season. 

Photo: Bob Christy
This was my first visit to the Porthouse Theatre, a lovely outdoor performance space that is a part of the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, a pleasant drive around two hours from Columbus. I was a little surprised to find that the show was being performed outside on such a bright and sunny (and hot) Sunday afternoon, but the theatre is constructed on the side of a hill with the seats descending stadium-style to the stage at the bottom. I found it quite comfortable as the seats on the padded, backed benches were roomy, and the audience and stage were sheltered from direct light. It was like viewing theatre under the shade of a large tree with the breeze flowing and birds chirping; I can only imagine how nice it would be to see a show here on a crisp evening. The grounds have many picnic tables, ample free parking, and a nice concession area for drinks and treats.

Photo: Bob Christy – Jared Dixon as Flick and Amy Fritsche as Violet
Amy Fritsche plays Violet, appearing in her first Porthouse Theatre production during her summer off from teaching theatre at Kent State University. With facial structure that brings to mind Ann Todd and Laura Linney, Amy acts wounded well, appearing emotionally calloused from years of taunting even though in reality she’s a gorgeous blonde. As on Broadway, the scar is not represented by makeup but rather by the reaction people have to it and Violet’s own words. As Violet, Amy doesn’t scowl and act gruff like Sutton Foster did on Broadway, but that’s because she doesn’t have anything to prove; Sutton had to show she could play more than the peppy ingenue after Tony wins in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, and I think that pushed her performance in Violet too far in the opposite direction. Amy isn’t afraid to smile at a joke or greeting, and she is more vulnerable and reachable as a result. Like Sutton she comes off as a bit too intelligent to believe that a faith healer could suddenly heal her scar when doctors couldn’t; unlike Sutton I didn’t feel like her emotional dukes were up to the extent that she couldn’t be reached. It’s always thrilling to see an actor go on a journey in a role and grow, and Amy makes Violet’s eventual epiphany heartbreakingly honest and touching.

Jared Dixon plays Flick, the black serviceman Violet befriends along with his buddy Monty, played by Ian Benjamin. Jared is likable and sweet as Flick, and I believed his interest in Violet was coming from a place of mutual understanding. Ian is perfectly cast as Monty, an immature young serviceman who talks big thinking that people will take to him better for it; the part was played on Broadway by a pretty-boy type far beyond the age for which the part was written, but Ian has the fresh-faced look that is just right for it and the slight awkwardness of youth that the part requires. Both men sing quite well and drift in and out of verse with ease. 

Photo: Bob Christy – Talia Cosentino as young Violet, Dane Castle as her father, and Amy Fritsche as Violet

Dane Castle and Talia Cosentino play Violet’s father and the younger Violet, respectively, in flashbacks and dream sequences. Dane is caring but reserved as the father, and his bearded, broad mountain man look helps to hide the guilt and concern he has for his motherless daughter. His affection for Talia feels real. What Talia lacks in resemblance to Amy she makes up for in heart; her eyes are extremely expressive and warm, and I enjoyed seeing her come back onto the stage for each appearance.

The smaller roles are also extremely well cast, and many of the actors play several parts. Allisyn Just plays the old lady with verve, looking like a more mobile Thelma Harper from Mama’s Family; as the hotel singer her sterling voice, sly grin, and beautiful teeth are on display, as well they should be. Shamara Costa as the landlady is someone I wouldn’t dare cross, quick and sharp, shifting gears completely to sing effectively as the gospel soloist. Paul Floriano doubles as the bus driver and the preacher, the latter part he grabs and runs with, appearing like the perfect religious zealot working the crowd.

What I liked about director Steven C. Anderson’s production of Violet is that he has found a way of presenting the story simply on such a relatively small stage. Characters often appear walking around the perimeter of the theatre and then enter the performance space walking down the aisles where the audience is seated. The flashback and dream sequences are staged in a way that spells out exactly what they are, while on Broadway I was sometimes confused. An intermission has thankfully been added at an appropriate place, and the events of the story play out at a brisk pace while not feeling rushed. The gore hound in me would’ve liked more realistic blood and makeup in the flashback to Violet’s accident, but that’s a pretty minor criticism for such a strong production.

While I think Violet is slightly over musicalized (there is a lot of recitative when regular dialogue would’ve more than fit the bill), I found a new appreciation for the show in this production. Violet’s inner and outer journey is easier to understand and embrace with this team of talented performers behind it, and it is a show that only improves in its second half (quite unusual in my experience). The show is worth seeing even if one only saw the last few minutes when Violet learns how to let someone in to love her and give love in return in her relationship with Flick. Whether or not their interracial relationship would last in such a troubled time isn’t as important as the fact that Violet, by way of her pilgrimage, grew emotionally and would never again be the same untrusting, closed-off person that she was at the start of her journey. This is the kind of theatre that is touching without being preachy, the kind that shows feelings rather than tells about them. The Porthouse Theatre production of Violet demonstrates what theatre is all about, and my only regret is that I only got to see this incarnation of the show once. 

***/ out of ****

Violet continues through to July 25th at the Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls, OH (around two hours from Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.kent.edu/porthouse/news/porthouse-continues-season-violet

My friend Michael Nalepka and I at the Sunday matinee of Violet.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (Imagine Productions – Columbus, OH)

Thoroughly Modern Millie has an interesting lineage; the musical play is based on the 1967 musical film starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Only two songs from the film have been retained (the maddeningly hummable title song and Jimmy) while the rest of the score is original with music by Jeanine Tesori (she just won a long overdue Tony for Fun Home) and lyrics by Dick Scanlon, who also wrote the book along with film scribe Richard Morris. Premiering on Broadway in 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie would run for over two years, win six Tony Awards (including Best Musical), and go on to perhaps greater success as a popular property licensed for performance by high schools and community theatres across the country.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in 1922 in Manhattan where country girl Millie Dillmount has arrived to find a husband, with her sights set on marrying a rich boss – as soon as she can find one. Along the way she meets naive orphan Miss Dorothy Brown, poor big kid Jimmy Smith, society matron Muzzy Van Hossmere, handsome but distant businessman Trevor Graydon, and evil whiter slaver Mrs. Meers. Will Millie learn to marry for love or money? Well, the answer is obvious, but the fun is in seeing how she comes to the conclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Meredith Zahn as Millie
Meredith Zahn makes for a snappy Millie Dillmount, lively without appearing to suffer from a thyroid condition like Sutton Foster did on Broadway (yes, I know she won the Tony for it, but I think that her overzealousness was a bit tough to take in person). Meredith’s voice is pure and strong, and she blends in nicely when necessary with the other tenants of the Hotel Priscilla, all wearing their smart fashions with ease. Costume coordinator Jackie Farbeann really outdid herself in recreating the period without being too on the nose.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Kathy Taylor as Mrs. Meers

Kathy Taylor is a delicious Mrs. Meers, so abhorrently conniving that you almost want her to succeed with her current business plan to see just what she might come up with next. Her cohorts Ching Ho (Dante DiNucci) and Bun Foo (Sharon Kibe) understandably cower under her domination, and their dialogue appears in English in projections that appear to the right and left above the stage and are for the most part well timed. The portrayal of Mrs. Meers and her staff has been a problem going back to the film as they speak in broken English and appear to be Asian stereotypes. Mrs. Meers admits to being a frustrated former actress who lapses into her lisp whenever her boarders are present (she’s playing a part to them, albeit badly), but effort has been made to make her Asian helpers sympathetic. Whether this is all offensive is tough to say – it didn’t bother me or the audience, but none of us were Asian as far as I could see.

Hannah Berry is a standout as Muzzy Van Hossmere with an incredibly strong voice, beautiful teeth, and a calming demeanor. Chad Anderson as Trevor Graydon has the matinee idol looks down, even if he sometimes gets a bit tongue-tied. Ann Johnson as Miss Dorothy Brown is sweet without being saccharine, and one can see why Millie would forgive her for most anything. Jared Joseph does double duty performing as Jimmy Smith with plenty of charm while also being musical director for the show; I’m sure he has more than a little something to do with how great the orchestra sounds.

The main set piece is a rotating platform that has interchangeable panels to transform from the lobby of the Hotel Priscilla to Trevor Graydon’s office to the estate of wealthy Muzzy Van Hossmere. The settings are suggested by designs and signs in place of elaborate sets, and it is the perfect way to use this space. There are even doors on the platform that swing off to the side to represent the rooms within the hotel! Scenic designers Alex McDougal-Webber and Riley Hutchinson deserve some special prize for pulling this one off.

As I mentioned previously, the orchestra sounds really terrific with nary a stray note to be heard, well conducted by Abby Zeszotek above and to the left of the stage. The placement of the orchestra obviously requires some amplification, and this is one of the few areas for improvement – it’s just too loud. When the singers and the orchestra are going full force, the volume level is too high to keep everything intelligible. Less is more, especially in such a small venue. 

Still, director and choreographer Rose Babington has breathed fresh life into this production, packing so much onto a comparatively small stage. Even the flaws in the book (is it just me or does everything get resolved rather quickly and easily at the end?) are easy to overlook when there is such energy and life to glide past them. I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed the play so much, either on Broadway or on tour, and I urge everyone looking to enjoy a lively, funny musical to book a stool at Wall Street to catch this one before it’s gone.

***/ out of ****

Thoroughly Modern Millie continues through to August 2 at Wall Street in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://www.imaginecolumbus.org/thoroughly-modern-millie.html

Fun Home (Circle in the Square Theatre – NYC)

All I knew of Fun Home before seeing it was that it involved a funeral home, took place in the ’70s, and had lesbians in it. I knew that it had played off-Broadway in 2014 and was reportedly quite good. After Finding Neverland I was ready for anything better than awful. I didn’t prepare myself for how miraculous and sublime Fun Home would be.

Based on the graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home is a story played out in flashback as an adult Alison is going through boxes of her father’s things. Alison is a forty-something lesbian cartoonist, recalling her life as a child of the ’70s growing up with her two brothers and parents in a sprawling old house in suburban Pennsylvania from which the family runs their funeral home. We know nearly from the beginning that Alison’s father died by suicide and that he was a closeted gay man, and yet that doesn’t stop the show from being full of surprises.

We see a little girl Alison, played by the astounding Sydney Lucas, playing with her brothers in and out of coffins and dancing and singing a catchy “commercial” they perform for the funeral home. It reminded me of the kind of weird games we all played as kids. I remember a friend of mine and I playing fast food drive-thru using the sliding windows of a car port, and one of my ex’s regaled me with stories of making music videos of he and his sister and neighbors lip synching and dancing to Madonna using a Betamax camera. It’s the kind of silly stuff we do as kids to find a way to have fun with whatever happens to be around us. The disco lighting we see when the kids sing and dance their commercial is highly stylized and unrealistic, but I bet it’s just the way they remember it in their minds, just like how we all remember things through a slight filter and angle of subjectivity.

Bruce, Alison’s father, played arrestingly by Michael Cerveris, is engaging and supportive one minute and then distant and mean the next, but then who wouldn’t be rather testy trying to live two lives at the same time and never being able to fully immerse and relax in either? Helen, Alison’s mother, played heartbreakingly by Judy Kuhn (who was the singing voice of Disney’s Pocahontas along with being in the original Broadway company of Les Miserables), knows of her husband’s dalliances with men – sometimes underage boys we later find out – but she tries to look the other way and block it out. One scene finds her playing Chopin over and over while her husband is alone in another room with an attractive young man he has hired to do odd jobs around the house. She knows what is going on but is always looking to distract herself.

As Alison goes off to college and struggles to come to terms with being a lesbian, her father is just as resolute to pretend that he isn’t gay. The older Alison speaks of how she and her father are exactly alike and nothing alike at the same time, and who hasn’t been able to look back at their life and, knowing their parents and themselves, be able to see the qualities they inherited from either parent? And that is the biggest takeaway I have from Fun Home, the idea of seeing our parents as people with feelings and a past and emotions separate from their role as our parents. We all see things differently looking back at events that happened when we were children with the knowledge we now have as adults and gain insight unbeknownst to us at the time. Young Alison remembers a time when her father was sneaking out of the house, and she guilts him into staying a while and singing her back to sleep. As an adult looking back, she knows he was on his way out to cruise guys, but at the time she just knew he was on his way out probably to do something he shouldn’t.

The music is by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, and it is quite an achievement. The songs are all specific to the scene and characters and are fully integrated, unlike the bland mess of Finding Neverland, where the songs lack the specificity of time, place, or context. The play is performed without an intermission at the Circle in the Square Theatre in the round, a pretty tricky place to stage any show – yet director Sam Gold guides set pieces around so that nothing is blocked to the audience and everyone has a valid vantage point from which to watch the action unfold.

Fun Home is daring, poignant, honest, and touching, and it is the kind of musical drama that reinvigorates the art form. Regardless of any awards that may come its way – and many are deserved – it warms my heart to think of theatre companies across the country performing this intense and original work. It needs to be seen and appreciated, though I’m concerned that perhaps it is too special for Broadway. 

This is one that should not be missed!

****/****

Michael Portantiere and I at the play.