by Clinton Campbell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday January 14, 2016

Alison McCartan and Nile Scott Hawver
Alison McCartan and Nile Scott Hawver  

Musicians and musical lovers will want to catch Speakeasy Stage Company's current production of Jeanine Tesori's "Violet."

Based on Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," the musical premiered off-Broadway in 1997 and was revived in a revised version for Broadway in 2014 with Sutton Foster. The SpeakEasy gave the show its Boston premiere during their 1999-2000 season, with the company's artistic director Paul Daigneault at its helm. He returns to stage the Boston premiere of the new version, which continues through February 6 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center of the Arts.

Set in 1964, "Violet" concerns a facially scarred young woman who takes a road trip in search of a faith healer. Taking a bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma gives her plenty of time to ruminate on her life and bond with her fellow passengers - especially two young soldiers.

While the plot (lyrics and Book by Brian Crawley) is flimsy, predictable and sometimes saccharin; this show is all about the music. Ms. Tesori, the Tony-winning composer for the current hit "Fun Home," creates a layered, complex, and intriguing score that meanders its way through many Southern influences including folk, blues, gospel, and rock. It is a score that represents a region of the country without clichťs.

Alison McCartan and Audree Hedequist
Alison McCartan and Audree Hedequist  (Source: Glenn Perry/SpeakEasy Stage)

Matthew Stern's musical direction is impeccable. All the elements are there in both cast and orchestra. It is incredibly refreshing to hear a cast deliver clean, unison consonant cut-offs. One forgets how sloppy musical theater performance has become until you hear it done well.

Thankfully, the talented cast is entirely up to the task. Vocally, there is not a weak link in this ensemble and they provide some of the best harmonic singing seen recently on a Boston stage.

Alison McCartan delivers a beautiful performance as Violet. She navigates the roller coaster of emotions with ease - all while projecting a deep seated hope for a better life. Violet is a character that could become shrill and unrelatable in less skilled hands. Ms. McCartan immediately charms the audience and you are hers until the end.

Equally notable is Audree Hedequist as the young Violet. Her assured performance projects wisdom beyond her years. While watching the interplay between Ms. McCartan and Ms. Hedequist, it seems entirely plausible that we are witnessing the same person at different ages.

As the soldiers, Dan Belnavis as Flick and Nile Scott Hawver as Monty, provide perfect foils to Violet's optimism. Both are handsome, strong, and down to earth. While the love triangle's conclusion is obvious from the beginning, they still manage to make it honest and believable.

The design of the show is subtle and unassuming in the best way possible. In such a character driven show, Eric Levenson's set is versatile and simple which allows the actors to remain the focus throughout. One minor issue is Karen Perlow's use of florescent tube lighting at moments to illustrate the various bus stations. While totally appropriate and logical, they are a bit blinding when they are first turned on pulling focus each time.

Overall, while the plot of "Violet" is not very original, the music is remarkable and, as performed here, is more than worth seeing.

"Violet" continues through February 2 at the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA. For further information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage Company's website.