“Bring me to the light”—of the Historic Gem Theatre in Garden Grove California, that is, where after a tragic fire in May 2011, their resident theater company, “One More Productions”, is demonstrating things are better than back to normal with the opening of “Violet” on Saturday, April 12th 2014. A truly triumphant musical with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, “Violet” is based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts. It introduces us to Violet, a young facially disfigured woman who, in 1964, embarks on a bus journey from her farm in the hills of North Carolina, all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma in order to be healed by a flashy “fire-and-brimstone” Televangelist whom she sees as her last hope for a normal face and a normal life. The first book-musical to be performed at The Gem Theatre since the landmark facility reopened following their recent renovation, the show’s director is Damien Lorton (who’s also the co-founder of One More Productions.) On opening night, Lorton addressed the audience explaining the choice for “Violet” to open the company’s 2014 musical season was made to provide viewers “not just with the type of shows they want to see, but the type of shows they deserve to see.”
A simple orchestration opens with a languid banjo rhythm that builds gradually into the jumpin’, jivin’, opening number, titled “On My Way”. After which, we learn via flashback that life has not been easy for our Heroine and that after the tragic accident that left her scarred, the self-righteous among her small (and small-minded) mountain community have been quick to rationalize her misfortune as “just desserts fer not goin’ t’church more regular!” Even her father advises at one point that when going to the local ‘pitchur show’ she “take the back way so’s nobody sees ya.” As a theatrical device, we never actually see the scar but rather the way those on stage react to it. According to Librettist Crawley, this was done to provide individual audience members “the opportunity to decide the meaning of beauty for themselves.” Happily, Violet’s Papa has also taught her something she can use in life—and that’s how to play cards. Indeed, by age 26 she’s a regular ‘card-sharp’! This inspires one of the productions’ more memorable numbers, “Luck Of The Draw”–as the adult Violet continually skunks her two traveling companions—soldiers by the names of “Flick” and “Monty”–in a game of Poker even as we see her younger self being taught how to do it by her father (“so’ she’ll learn to add and subtract better” of course.)
In the title role, Nicole Cassesso is ebullient and thoroughly likeable—sensitive and charismatic which is so important for this particular story as it all unfolds entirely through her eyes.
It is in the subtler moments though, when she doesn’t simply ‘shine’ onstage, she incandesces, providing deep insight into her character and into the human condition of the time as well. Matching her in terms of amiability, “root-for-ability” and talent is Skylar Johnson who’s a big, burly, vocal power house as Sgt. Grady Flickers, or “Flick” for short. His intense, soulful voice is especially well showcased with “Let It Sing” and “Promise Me, Violet”. Joining them is Danny Diaz as the young Vietnam-bound soldier, Monty (short for “Montgomery”.) Flush with the brashness of youth, Diaz’ Monty isn’t a bad guy—he’s just headstrong and despite a brief encounter with the leading lady, neither is what the other sincerely needs. Moreover Sophia Scarsi, also makes for a spunky-yet-sympathetic, younger Violet. In fact, some of the best, most touching moments occur when the two Violets share the stage simultaneously as the plot unfolds both in the present and in flashback concurrently.
Then again, every member of the small, eight-person ensemble is given plenty to do and all have their moments. Danielle Lopez as the singer in a seedy music hall our trio visits, really knocks one out of the ball park with her awesome handling of “Lonely Stranger”—a hip, uber-groovy descant reminiscent of the classic 60’s era Motown sound. Kwanzaa Higgins too has an absolutely dynamic voice which she joyfully unleashes in her turn as Lulu Buffington—one of the preacher’s acolytes–during the second act Crowd-Pleaser, “Raise Me Up”. Daniel Berlin also offers fine support as the (literally) larger than life Televangelist whom Violet has set out to meet and be ‘healed’ by in her quest ‘fer a brand new face’. Similar to “The Wizard Of Oz”, he’s that man behind the curtain–only now, he’s on TV preaching to the masses, without genuinely caring for any of them. Alex Bodrero as Violet’s Father, the one responsible for her accident, is likewise a forceful presence, but his best, most empathetic moments occur chiefly in Act II as well.
Just as the slightly enlarged stage complements the newly revamped auditorium (—even the paint still smells fresh–) Lorton’s direction is both innovative and understated, making full use of the theater. This is especially shrewd as the true power of this one really sneaks up on you (and oh, what a power it is!) Wally Huntoon’s sky blue “Greyhound Bus Station” set effectively and effortlessly serves double and triple duties for many locations, while Crawley and Tesori’s remarkable Tony-worthy score perfectly recalls both the times and the places the story takes us to, raucously encompassing, at turns, bits of classic “Opryland” country, vintage rock-and-roll and good old roof-raising gospel. (As it also happens, Act Two is practically all sung through with only small breaks for actual spoken dialogue!)
Thought-provoking and potent, it’s a rare opportunity when local audiences can see a show that is simultaneously in its pre-Broadway run in New York City, yet that’s exactly what’s happening here. According to Lorton, “The Gem” is only one of two theaters (the other being in Washington State) that was allowed to retain the rights to “Violet” once the Roundabout Theater Company decided to take the show to Broadway where it officially opens later this week. So don’t miss the bus—checkout this little ‘gem’ of a show at The Gem Theatre where it’s playing through Sunday May 4th.. Show-times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00PM. The Gem Theatre is located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove California. For more information or to purchase tickets call One More Productions at (714) 741-9550, ext. 225, or visit the website at: www.onemoreproductions.com. (Student Rush and Senior Discounts are also available.)
Production Photos By Lisa Scarsi Courtesy Of “One More Productions”; Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Dan Pittman And The Cast & Crew Of One More Productions’ “Violet” For Making This Story Possible.