Burgeoning Bloom

Two leads transform Violet into a fragrant nosegay.

Violet Alma Theater, Cain Park, Superior Avenue and Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000 through August 20
Violet (Lori Scarlett) waves farewell to her hometown.
Violet (Lori Scarlett) waves farewell to her hometown.
At this sultry time of year, when local theater productions invariably turn camp or senile, Violet, a plangent new musical, is eliciting a buzz among theatergoers.

This vibrant off-Broadway cult hit has been the topic of conversation for everyone from the cashier at a local deli to the social arbiters who ride RTA, garnering the kind of attention usually reserved for politicians caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

At a time when most musicals are based on old movies, here we have one that is original and audacious. With book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori, Violet is tender, flavorsome, and steeped in mystical rural passion. The score is a potent mixture of Mahalia Jackson gospel, early rock and roll, and Aaron Copland's yearning odes to homespun Americana.

The work is based on a short story called "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts. The story and show are in the eccentric Southern Gothic tradition, evocative of Flannery O'Connor and Truman Capote. It follows three mournful seekers whose vibrant souls have been trapped in their own private hells: an emotionally starved young woman who was disfigured as a girl in an accident with an ax; a black soldier looking for his due in the segregated South; and the soldier's white Army buddy, who's inarticulate and lovelorn.

In the classic Wizard of Oz format, Violet is seeking to have her woes removed by a bogus figure of power -- in this case, a television evangelist, another in a long line of Elmer Gantry-like charismatic con men.

The first act, which closely follows Betts's short story, is an effortless joyride. We follow the show's eponymous heroine through two journeys -- the first on a Greyhound bus through a Bible-belt South in the midst of changing from a Klan-dominated past to a new social consciousness. In a series of vividly evoked '60s bus stations, black hotels, and redneck juke joints, an impassioned triangle arises between Violet and the two needy soldiers. Simultaneously, we travel back in time as the young Violet and her gentle father come to terms with the tragic accident that has permanently scarred her, inside and out. In both past and present, she comes to terms with her deformity and learns how to accept love.

It is a wonderful conceit of this show not to try literally to show the scar, but rather to suggest it.

Unfortunately, the second act gets into trouble when it deviates from the short story, dropping the red-hot love triangle superbly developed in the first act for a confrontation between the ill-defined evangelist and the miracle-seeking Violet. Instead of logically solving the heroine's dilemma, we have a false, arbitrary ending that violates the short story and mars what could have been an ideal musical.

Victoria Bussert has conquered as Northeast Ohio's most touted, flashiest director. Once again, she excels in her fascinating dichotomy of dominatrix and Mary-Contrary gardener. She has cultivated a sultry and colorful cast and has used her players to best advantage. Bussert has a special gift of being able to imbue actors with the steamy passion of the erotic icons that used to decorate tawdry '50s paperbacks. She propels them around the stage with the verve of hot-rod hellcats.

In spite of a uniformly hormone-rich cast, the big news this year is a 21-year-old pre-med major named Craig Recko. He's a triple threat, excelling as actor, singer, and beefcake eyeful. His limitless abundance of boyish sincerity and effortless charm brings to mind the freshly emerging Paul Newman in the road company of Picnic, when he was causing '50s housewives at the Hanna to swoon. After Recko displayed his picturesque torso in a love scene worthy of D.H. Lawrence, an ex-leading man in the audience was heard to sigh that he would never be able to take off his shirt in public again.

As Violet, Lori Scarlett, another in a long line of Bussert wonders, shares with Cloris Leachman and Julie Harris the ability to be on the surface as scrubbed and prim as a schoolmarm, at the same time emitting the primeval beatific glow of an earth goddess. Her incandescence imbues the evening with emotional veracity.

Playing her character as a young girl, Hannah DelMonte is a perfect match.

Scott Plate, Cleveland theater's answer to Norman Bates, plays a variety of roles, including the underwritten evangelist. He belts out a gospel number with decadent, neurotic intensity. As Violet's father, Jeffrey L. Green is equally adept at suggesting love and guilt. Derrick Cobey's Flick passes muster, but ideally could use more charisma and a truer voice.

Violet is a musical that, lapses and all, demands to be experienced, savored, and appreciated for demonstrating that the musical form is still thriving and evolving. Anyone who shrinks from it deserves an eternity of Miss Saigons.

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