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‘Violet,’ a musical on a bus trip, seldom goes anywhere

Monty (Courtney Crouse from left) Flick (Evan Tyrone Martin) Violet (Harmony France) are fellow bus passengers musical “Violet.”

Monty (Courtney Crouse, from left), Flick (Evan Tyrone Martin) and Violet (Harmony France) are fellow bus passengers in the musical “Violet.”

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‘VIOLET’

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

◆ Through Oct. 16

◆ Bailwick Chicago at the Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport

◆ Tickets, $27.50-$32.50

◆ (773) 325-1700; bailiwickchicago.com

Updated: November 25, 2011 12:20AM



The cleverly designed program for Bailiwick Chicago’s revival of “Violet” — a Bible-Belt-meets-civil-rights-era musical with an “I am somebody” spirit — tells part of the story.

It takes the form of a Greyhound Bus schedule and includes a map of all the stops made in this show that rolls along (songfully, but rather too ploddingly) on the notes of a roots-gospel-blues score by Jeanine Tesori (who also penned the music for Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change”) and a book and lyrics by Brain Crawley (based on a short story by North Carolina writer Doris Betts).

The first stop on the route is the rural mountain town of Spruce Pine, N.C., where 25-year-old Violet (Harmony France, whose unadorned acting and solid voice project her character’s mix of intelligence, passion and damaged self-image) gets on board. She is heading west, determined to meet up with the faith-healing preacher in Tulsa, Okla., she believes finally will rid her of the disfiguring facial scar she has had ever since she became the victim of an accident many years earlier.

Violet’s trip takes her through Nashville and Memphis to Fort Smith, Ark., where she meets and is partly transformed by her friendships with a cocky young white soldier, Monty (a feisty, volatile Courtney Crouse), and his pal, a sensitive young black soldier, Flick (Evan Tyrone Martin), a golden-voiced actor of sweetness and grace, who raises the temperature here in the rousing “Let It Sing.”

Already somewhat changed, Violet then moves on to Tulsa, where she encounters the slick young televangelist (Jim DeSelm, in a fine turn that takes his character from fire to failure), who turns out to be more narcissist than miracle worker. But of course all roads eventually lead home.

The principal problem with the production lies in Elizabeth Margolius’ direction, which turns the show into more of a static oratorio than a literal and metaphoric journey. Too often, it feels as if Violet’s bus got stuck at a rest stop, with John Zuiker’s initially eye-catching collage-and-window set becoming more backdrop than enhancement. In addition, Margolius needs to find some way to suggest, right from the start, exactly what occurred in the accident that left Violet so scarred.

Andra Velis Simon — musical director, keyboardist and conductor of an excellent five-piece onstage band — does an ideal job with the country/blues/gospel score. And there is good supporting work by Glynis Gilio (as the young Violet), John B. Leen (as Violet’s loving but imperfect dad) and Ryan Gaffney (as Violet’s goofy friend).

In any case, it’s nice to have the intimate Mercury Theater back in operation, even if this “Violet” doesn’t quite blossom as fully as it should.

† Somewhat recommended. Through Oct. 16 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport. For tickets ($27.50-$32.50), call (773) 325-1700, bailiwickchicago.com.



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