The only visible scar in Slow Burn Theatre Company’s Violet is part of the set at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. This metaphorical gash — an inspired idea on the part of designer Sean McClelland — represents the disfigurement that drives the action in this hopeful musical, which tackles such resonant subjects as body image, racism, faith and the healing power of love.
Set in 1964 and based on the story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, Violet charts the journey of its title character, a determined young woman who was disfigured at 13 in an accident with an axe. Now, weary of the looks of horror and disgust she gets from her neighbors, she plans to travel by bus from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains to Tulsa, where she believes a TV preacher can heal her. Violet wants to be beautiful again, but what will truly change her life are the people she meets along the way.
Like the Violets before her, Slow Burn’s terrific Lindsey Corey doesn’t have a physical scar, which is part of the play’s simple but potent message about perception and prejudice and how there’s more to all of us than what’s on the surface. When Violet meets two soldiers — one black, one white — the point is hammered home further: serious Flick (André Russell) suffers similar treatment because of his skin color. But even his pal, good-time Monty (Alex Jorth), may have more going on under his party-boy exterior than we assume.
Written by Brian Crawley, with music by Jeanine Tesori, Violet started life as an off-Broadway production and was later pared to a one-act show for its Broadway run. The play itself is a bit thin for its weighty subjects, and the swift 90-minutes-give-or-take run time doesn’t allow for much character development (it’s performed without an intermission). But Patrick Fitzwater’s seamless direction and choreography and strong performances by almost all of Slow Burn’s cast propel the audience immediately into Violet’s journey.
Tesori’s score — adapted beautifully by musical director Manny Schvartzman and performed flawlessly by the small orchestra, which sits unobtrusively at the back of the stage — carries a Memphis-blues-and-gospel feel that highlights the play’s time period, place and material. Standouts include Flick’s defiant Let It Sing and the jaunty Luck of the Draw, a flashback in which Violet’s dad (the Carbonnell-nominated Shane Tanner of Slow Burn’s recent Big Fish) teaches the young Violet (Lucia Fernández de los Muros) how to play poker while grownup Violet fleeces the soldiers.
And if you don’t find yourself fighting to stay in your seat during the rousing revival groove of Raise Me Up, check your pulse, because Kendra Williams raises the roof in this show-stopper. Violet could use a few more moments of this sort of breathless joy, but its message still makes an impact.