by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Since mid-January an intrepid troupe of musical-theater students has been rehearsing the sweet and soulful show Violet at The Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts under the able direction of Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro, who co-teach the school’s pay-to-play “Creating a Musical Role” class. The results were on glorious display last night when this shoestring student project began the first of six public performances in a cavernous auditorium space that melodiously became an up-close-and-personal showcase for some amazing up-and-coming talent.

The show itself—about a young woman named Violet whose face was scarred in a childhood accident and who takes a series of bus trips from Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to meet a faith healer in Tulsa—has one of the most gorgeous scores in contemporary musical theater. Composed by Jeanine Tesori and first performed off-Broadway in 1997, it features show tunes, folk, bluegrass, rock, and gospel; and the leads and ensemble in this production deliver it powerfully, touchingly, often thrillingly.

The role of Violet is played as a 25-year-old by Julie Dixon, who fascinatingly captures the character’s vacillation between awkward self-consciousness and feisty assertiveness. As her tween self Young Vi, Maddy Heyman positively glows with youthful hope, and her scenes with Stephen Smith as her doting single father—whose ax head flies off its handle and slices her face—are among the most poignant in the show. (We are to imagine the resulting scar; it’s never shown, as helpfully explained in a program note by lyricist and book writer Brian Crawley.)

The story is set in the South in 1965—a year after the Civil Rights Act was passed—and its theme of Violet’s quest for facial restitution is never far from its theme of institutionalized racism. Crawley’s sensitive script, based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, takes its sweet time unfolding the story, in flashback, overlapping scenes, and musical interludes—the narrative pace is as languid as a long ride in a bus—but the payoff at the end, when the two themes converge in a declaration of love, is an emotional knockout.

En route to Tulsa Violet meets two servicemen, one white and one black, both of whom fall for her. As Monty, the former, Zach Roberts is a charmer, an endlessly inventive male ingenue, whose strong come-on to Violet turns surprisingly tender. As Flick, the latter, Jonathan Randle does mesmerizing justice to the character’s stolid still-waters-run-deep soulfulness, and by the last scene he had me tearing.

Other standouts include Terry Gish as Preacher, who thumped the Bible with transfixing charisma, and Brandyn Ashley as gospel singer Lula, who may well have raised the auditorium’s actual rafters.

Among the cast list are even more finds (Rob Weinzimer as a Bus Driver, Susan Schulman as Old Lady, Robin Parry as Waitress, Mia Jacobs as another Bus Driver, Jacqueline Brown as Landlady, Rachel Lawhead as Hotel Singer, Korinn Walfall as Music Hall Singer, Kevin Youel Page as Mechanic/Radio Singer/Creepy Guy, Sam Landa as Rufus/Billy Dean, Eva Youel Page as Little Girl, Lynley Peoples as Virginia, Bri Eul, Mami Kaminaga, and Stella Sklar as Customers, Amy Jackson as a third Bus Driver [there are a lot of bus rides!], Eternada Fudge as Mabel). And the band, under the musical direction of Buzz Mauro, was professional pit-orchestra quality throughout (Mauro and Bill Yanesh on keyboards, Ken Hall on guitar, Evan Shafer on bass, and Paul Keesling on percussion).

The music and the singing set a superb high bar that not all the other production values measured up to. But there was never any doubt that the vocals were being sung by a stageful of voices-to-pay-attention-to. Local casting agents would be well advised to check it out.