- Views & Opinions
Anne Siegel, Contributing writer
All great theater takes audiences on some kind of journey. It may be a journey inside the mind of the characters, or a physical journey where events lead to a character’s change.
Skylight Music Theatre promises both with a new musical, Violet, that opens Skylight’s 2016–17 season. The modest-sized musical (only 11 actors) centers around a woman in her mid-twenties, Violet, who seeks healing for a facial scar that happened as a result of an accident when she was 13.
For the disfigured Violet, her rural hometown in North Carolina has become an unfriendly place. Unfortunately, teens can be just as cruel as smaller children, and Violet also has been scarred by the taunts she endured ever since the accident. She believes that a faith healer in another state may be able to “heal” her wound and make her whole once more.
Violet originally was produced Off Broadway in 1997, and it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical and the prestigious Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical. The show’s success took it to Broadway, where it earned four Tony nominations. Among them was a nomination for stage superstar Sutton Foster.
Although its tenure on Broadway was relatively brief, one of the audience members who caught the show was Ray Jivoff, Skylight’s interim artistic director. “I admit it; when I see a Broadway musical I immediately start wondering if it would be right for Skylight,” Jivoff said during an interview in Skylight’s administrative offices.
Jivoff loved the musical’s themes and the characters in the show. But it was the music that impressed him the most.
“As Violet travels by Greyhound through different states, the music changes accordingly,” Jivoff noted. “It begins with bluegrass and other country musical styles, as Violet heads from North Carolina toward Memphis,“ he said.
The score also includes doses of rhythm and blues, and even gospel numbers, as Violet travels closer to her destination in Tulsa, Okla.
The score is by Tony Award-winning Jeanine Tesori, with book and lyrics by Brian Crowley. Skylight’s production opens on Sept. 30, and runs through Oct. 16 at the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.
The Skylight production stars Allie Babich, a Wisconsin-born actor who trained at Milwaukee’s First Stage. She attended the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program. After successfully tackling musical roles such as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, she’s confident about handling the lead role in Violet.
“I’ve never played someone like Violet,” she said during a phone interview. “She learns — as many of us have learned while growing up — that you start to behave in a certain way based on how other people treat you.” Violet’s confidence is boosted by two soldiers she meets on her trip, Flick (Lamar Jefferson) and Monty (Alex Mace). Their interaction provides some of the humor that percolates throughout the show.
The story is set in 1964, at the tumultuous height of America’s black civil rights movement. One of the soldiers is African-American, and he shares his own experience about discrimination and ridicule. When Violet encounters this kindred soul (in a very intimate way), she begins her path toward forgiveness and acceptance.
Babich is looking forward to working for the first time with local director Sheri Williams Pannell. Although the show was only three rehearsals into production when this article went to press, Babich already saw signs of a promising collaboration.
Pannell was encouraged by what she’s been able to coax from cast members. She envisions a powerful show that challenges audiences’ preconceptions by presenting the material in ways they might not have considered. The musical gives the audience characters with whom they can identify.
“Violet challenges our narrow definitions of what beauty really is,” she said during a break. Like Ray Jivoff, Pannell is excited by the musical score. Although Pannell has not seen the New York version of the musical, she is impressed by “how smoothly the music integrates with the story.”
The show’s music director is Anne van Deusen. She’s working with an orchestra of eight musicians — a number that rivals the number of actors onstage. This is vastly different than some of Skylight’s previous musicals, such as Sound of Music and Music Man, which required a cast more than triple the size of what one will see in Violet.
The musical tells Violet’s story from an adult point of view, so parents should know that the show is appropriate for children 12 and over.
Violet runs Sept. 30–Oct. 16 in the Cabot Theatre, located in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, call the box office (414) 291-7800 or click on skylightmusictheatre.org.