Classy performances light up shallow ‘Violet’

First the good news: Bay Area Musicals, now in its fourth season, is firing on all performing cylinders in its current show, the romantic musical “Violet,” which opened on Broadway in 2014.

The singing, on the part of a 15-member cast, is terrific.

The principal actors are great (some of the ensemble roles, though, are cartoony).

And the direction by Dyan McBride, on the shallow stage of the Alcazar Theatre, is fine, as is the dancing (choreographed by artistic director-founder Matthew McCoy) in an entertaining Memphis dance hall scene.

Based on a 1969 short story by Doris Betts, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” it follows the journey of the titular Violet (played with flirtatious energy by Juliana Lustenader), a backwoods girl from North Carolina who’s self-conscious about a scar on her face (invisible to us), the result of an accident with an ax when she was a kid.

Her younger self is played in flashbacks by a gifted 12-year-old, Miranda Long.

It’s 1969, and adult Violet is on a bus headed for Tulsa, Okla., to be “healed” and made movie-star-beautiful by a televangelist (a hilarious Clay David).

En route, she meets two soldiers, one black (the electrifying Jon-David Randle) and one white (a spirited Jack O’Reilly). Love and lust happen.

The score, by the acclaimed Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home,” “Caroline, or Change”), is a blend of country, almost-bluesy and generic stage-musical, but it’s the gospel sections that really rock, especially with this dynamic church choir.

Yet the story (Brian Crawley, book and lyrics) forms a hollow core.

It’s not just that Violet’s values — her scar notwithstanding — are appallingly shallow until she suddenly sees the light at the end.

But it seems that men, and men only, are meant to somehow redeem her: the preacher (who turns out to be only human after all), her father (seen in flashbacks and in a sort of vision), the two soldiers.

When she encounters a well-meaning old lady (Shay Oglesby-Smith) on the bus, Violet is rude and dismissive.

Hints at societal issues — the play is set during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War — are gratuitous: Violet’s inadvertent racist comments to the black soldier; the holy preacher’s surprise hissy fit and more.

And Violet’s big, brief moment of enlightenment, a sort of deus ex machina, simply lacks credibility.

What is this play about? The message seems to be: A girl’s self-esteem problems can be resolved by a man. Any man.


Presented by Bay Area Musicals
Where: Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 17
Tickets: $35 to $65
Contact: (415) 340-2207,