Violet (Charing Cross Theatre)

Violet (Charing Cross Theatre, until April 6th)

Some of the strongest musical performances currently to be seen in London theatre converge at Charing Cross Theatre in the eagerly awaited UK premiere of Violet.

Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s show comes across the Atlantic richly garnished with awards for off-Broadway (1997) and Broadway (2014) productions. With Tesori’s Caroline or Change attracting the crowds at regional, off-West End and West End levels in the past couple of years (and still going strong with its Playhouse transfer) and the UK premiere of Fun Home  wowing audiences and critics alike at the Young Vic last year it is one of the red hot must-see shows on any musical fan’s list.

Based on the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts the musical picks up the idea of looking beneath the surface both from the point of view of a world repelled by what is perceives as hideous and the personal journey to accepting oneself against all odds. Tellingly we don’t see the scar on Violet’s face so already see beyond the blemish to the beauty of the bright personality.

Set in 1964 amid the birth of the civil rights movement it is hard not to see parallels between Violet’s desire for acceptance and the African American sergeant Flick’s fear of being judged by outward appearance alone. It is no coincidence that the heroine’s Greyhound bus journey towards healing and acceptance takes her right across the heartlands of North America and the attitudes that prevail.

Before even a note is sounded the production bursts with excitement: it brings acclaimed Japanese director Shuntaro Fujita to the UK in a co-production with Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka, and will be transferring to Tokyo. It is clearly the start of an exciting new chapter of collaboration and cultural exchange and the theatre’s artistic director Thom Southerland is to be congratulated for launching it.

Unusually for the venue the audience is seated on both sides of a central stage with revolve. There is something about this configuration that doesn’t quite work for this intimate and compelling drama and it’s hard to put a finger on it. It may relate to not being able to appreciate Morgan Large’s set design fully as depending on where you are sat you can’t see the scenery to the left and right. It may even have something to do with distance even in a venue of this size – the further away you are physically the less likely you are to engage emotionally and an in the round staging might have minimised a strange lack of focus or that feeling of slight detachment.

What is immediately obvious is that the songs in Violet are instantly memorable, with the lyrics having extra-sharp depth, and are complemented by a spectrum of musical range, from gospel to bluegrass to ballads. They are sung with such strength and passion that jaws are likely to drop. There isn’t a weak number in the show’s 100 minutes, though this is as much to do with the energetic cast as it is the vibrant composition. Showstoppers such as the gospel foot-tapper “Raise Me Up” are balanced beautifully by the tender “Lay Down Your Head”

Kaisa Hammarlund, who starred in Fun Home at the Young Vic, again proves to be an actress and singer of versatility and substance, giving an extraordinarily layered performance in the title role. She captures perfectly the fragile young woman disfigured by an accident who decides to take a journey across the United States to see a fiery televangelist in the hope of a miracle cure for her perceived ugliness. On the way she encounters hostility, prejudice and love, as well as being haunted by images of her father and memories of her childhood before and after the horrific accident. Hers is an extraordinary performance in a production where everyone is at the very top of their game.

She is the best-drawn in a book where characterisation could be stronger, a feisty firebrand fighting for personal as well as social change. Her late number “Look At Me” is a cry from the heart that sums up her spirit.

Playing the two other corners of an intriguing love triangle Matthew Harvey is a cocky Monty, a swaggering soldier with a soaring voice, and Jay Marsh is the honest Flick, both of whom make their own journeys towards self-awareness. Both are storming performances which set the stage alight.

Kenneth Avery-Clark has the devil of a time as the fraudster preacher, a long way from being able to provide a divine miracle, whipping up the crowds into a God-fearing frenzy but ultimately disdainful of his admiring followers. In several flashbacks we see Keiron Crook, also strong with a moving performance as Violet’s father, who brought his daughter up on his own, and with his own reasons to be haunted by the past.

Musical director Dan Jackson gets the best from a band which occasionally overpowers the vocal performances, though checking sound balances should deal with that easily enough.

There are shades of the Wizard of Oz to this voyage of discovery: a trip to a con artist unable to fulfil expectations and the realisation that true intelligence, heart, courage and a sense of belonging lies within. But there isn’t necessarily a happy ending at the end of this yellow brick road: the joy is tinged with the dark reality of one soldier going to war and the knowledge that judging by outward appearance didn’t end with buoyant self-awareness.

Ultimately the weak and somewhat predictable storyline is overshadowed by colossal performances of superb showtunes, but this cannot quite hide a slight disappointment in a hotly-anticipated musical.

David Guest

Image: Scott Rylander

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub