Flick echoes to Violet, “But you said a leading lady / is what you wanna be …” And goddamnit, that is exactly what Zimmermann is — a leading lady. […] Violet is the first musical I’ve seen since seeing Hamilton that has kept my attention the entire time and made me want the story to never end.
(HOUSTON) – There were so many things going through my head about the production of Violet that we were invited to see open at the Queensbury Theatre in Houston just last night that I simply could not get the words I wanted to say out on paper. It didn’t help that the wine from the after party had been free and copious. But now the feelings have settled — and that’s the magic of a show like Violet, or maybe at least the magic of this cast and crew: they evoked so many emotions throughout the course of the show.
The show follows a woman named Violet Karl in 1964 rural America and is based on the short story “The Uglies Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, with a book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanin Tesori. The titular character, Violet — played by the incomparable Teresa Zimmermann — journeys by Greyhound Bus from her hometown (Spruce Pines, NC) to Tulsa, OK in order to find a televangelist preacher she believes can heal a nasty scar on her face that she received as a child when a rogue axe blade gashed her. Along the way, we see Violet meet a cast of eclectic characters in vain of The Canterbury Tales as she pilgrimages to her miracle, which is sure to never come. While on the bus, she meets two soldiers — Monty and Flick (whose race as a black man in the army is an important plot piece to the story) — who share their stories with her, tease her, and inevitably go after her heart in spite of one another.
Let’s start right at the front of the production. The Queensbury’s main stage is no small theatre, but when it comes to seat capacity, it is significantly smaller than the likes of the Hobby Center or even the Alley. The venue hosts only 250 seats in the entire house, giving it the coziness of a Broadway theater — most of which only seat 750-1000 patrons at a time — as opposed to the vast largeness of a theater like the Hobby Center, which hosts upwards of 3,000. There isn’t really a bad seat in the entire house, which is a rare thing to say in the theatre. But what makes that fact so much more interesting is just how gorgeous the architecture of the stage was to look at. The work of scenic designer Ryan McGettigan and scenic artist Abi Harris set the tone of the musical from the moment patrons found their seats, with its grays and browns that painted the imaginations of many, they created an authentic look and feel of 1964 rural America. This coupled with the brilliant lighting design by Jack Jacobs not only enhanced the feel of the story, but somehow aesthetically mirrored the music of the show. The band in the background (comprised of Jim Vukovich — who also served as music director — Jonathan Craft, Kristen Roberts, Daron Kirsch, Anthony Russell, Craig Andrew Edgar, and David Lerner) was flawless from beginning to end. Their synchronicity was so well fused that one might have thought the music had been playing from a track if it weren’t for their slight visibility in the wings. But the show would have been nothing without its phenomenal choreography and direction. It was clear from start to finish that the separate visions of director Marley Singletary, choreographer Bethany White, assistant director Holland Vavra, and producer RP Cameron was so well aligned that even if and when they may strayed a bit from each other, they strayed in all the right places. The way White’s choreography not only entertained, but gave depth to the characters personalities was nothing short of masterful — especially so in the cases of characters like Flick, Monty, and the Preacher. And the direction given to Violet — certainly not without a few character choices from Zimmermann herself — from Singletary and Vavra was the key component in making Violet not only unlikeable, but endearing.
The only technical complaints I might have had about the show came down to the sound. While it seemed that sound designer Bryan Nortin did an amazing job making sure that the mixes were professional and sleek, there were moments in the show when it became hard to hear actress Theresa Nelson‘s mic over the band. Unfortunately, this took a bit away from the show, as Nelson is an incredible comedic actress and singer and had some of the show’s funniest lines both musical and in word. There was also a slight hiccup toward the beginning when Brian Mathis‘s mic pack seemed to catch some interference and buzzed over his beautiful, syrupy-smooth singing voice. This slight only lasted a few seconds during the number “Luck of the Draw” and was quickly rectified, however. The cast and band, nonetheless, powered through it unfazed, with Mathis even raising his voice to be heard over it.
On the whole, the cast was absolutely phenomenal. The harmonies from the chorus to the leads was something to marvel at in group numbers such at the beginning and end. But by god I have not heard such underrated and triumphant voices in a musical as I have of Jennifer Barrett and Tye Lockett. Anytime either of those women had even the shortest solo throughout the musical, the hair on my arms stood and I could feel myself coming out of my seat to shout their praises. It was all I could do to not take both my shoes off and throw both at the stage.
Furthering on the point of vocals, the cast was nearly flawless. Actor Adam Gibbs (Monty) showed off an enormous range in “Last Time I Came to Memphis”. While the song was masterfully performed, Gibbs proved to be such an incredible actor when it came to playing the skeezy, sex-driven man that I almost couldn’t applaud his song due to how good at making me uncomfortable Gibbs was. I hope he finds that this statement is an honest compliment to his skill. What a truly talented actor he is. When it came to Derrick Brent II — who played Violet’s true love interest, Flick — I had no issue believing that he was his character. The sweetness, kindness, and even the subdued rage at some of Violet’s less kind comments was so easy for him to pull off that one might have thought he’d lived the story before himself. That being said, Brent’s vocals varied a bit. For the bulk of the show, he truly carried out the songs to their finest points. Although, a time or two — notably during the number “Let It Sing” — Brent appeared to be lost in his trials of mimicking the runs and riffs of Broadway cast Flick, Joshua Henry. Still, Brent carried it out with confidence and his acting skills pulled him through. It is nothing to fault him over, as when it came down to more necessary musical moments — such as his ending harmonies with Zimmermann — Brent was flawless. Brent’s most powerful point of interest is how synced-up he seemed with the underlying story of race in 1964 America. While the moments of issue with his Blackness were fleeting and few between, his portrayal and reactions were so strong that you never forgot that a large part of what this story is about is the beauty of being a Black person and how it should be celebrated for the plights Black people have suffered in American history (even currently).
Honorable mentions from the production are hard to do, because so many of the actors stood out to me. Nelson, of course, had the comedic timing of a professional, sitcom-grade thespian. She played three parts with the ease and difference that made it easy to tell character-from-character — something difficult to do in the theatre. Mathis — who played Violet’s father — not only sounded like honey, but he looked like it, too. His sweetness with his on-stage daughter was reminiscent of a true father’s love for his only child and his harder times with her — including a scene in which he rushes Violet to the doctor through rough terrain — brought me to tears several times over.
Then, of course, there was Young Violet herself, Miss Kelly Lomonte. Damn. The pipes on that girl were nothing short of classically-trained and inspired. Her characterization of Young Violet, however ranged from sweet, to assertive, to irreverent throughout the entire show. Few and far between are young actors who can carry a show the way Young Violet is written to, but Lomonte pulled it off with the kind of ease I’ve not even seen in much older, much more seasoned, and less green actors in various productions throughout my adult life. Brava to Lomonte.
Another fun actor to watch — especially so when he donned the green church choir gown — was Doug Atkins. Atkins’ performance was so funny and well-timed comedically, I often didn’t know how much of it was stage direction, how much was character choice, and how much was sheer improv. The other actors played off of him so well because as he clapped and raised his hands to praise Jesus, and he breathed life and a second into the rest of the cast as the second half of the intermission-less show chugged on to remind them what they were there to do — entertain.
I would, of course, be remiss if I did not talk about the show’s star.
As someone who has known Teresa Zimmermann professionally only for a short time, but one who has seen her perform more than a handful of times, I can truly say that Violet is my favorite role to have seen her in yet. Zimmermann did something not easy for any actor to do — she took a character of many layers and presented each one honestly. Zimmermann’s Violet, for me — someone who has seen Sutton Foster play the role on Broadway — is the only Violet. Zimmermann did not waste time trying to learn the ins-and-outs of what Foster had once brought to the role; and instead studied the character with such professional studiousness that it was often hard to remember that this was an actor playing the role. She so easily transitioned from indignation to hope and joy that I was reminded of how quick and fleeting emotion is in the human capacity to exist. A number in particular where Zimmermann exhibited this transition was in the number “All to Pieces”, in which Violet tells Flick and Monty of the perfect face she’d like to have if she is healed by the preacher. The only performance even possibly comparable to Zimmermann’s number I have ever seen in my life is that of superstar Idina Menzel in the original Broadway production of Wicked as she sings “The Wizard and I.” Through the entire number, that was all I could think about — “Teresa is bringing Elphaba’s hope in “Wizard” to this song.” That was truly an inspired number to see Teresa perform.
Zimmermann conquered the task that all actors put before themselves: make this character a real, corporeal person that people will understand and relate to. Violet is known for being ugly both in aesthetic and personality; and while Zimmermann herself is quite beautiful, it wasn’t hard to believe that she believed that she was ugly. And that’s sort of beautiful. What made me cry the hardest through this entire show were those parts in which Violet’s self-loathing inspired songs of desire and hatred. It gave me introspection into my own life, times when I’d hated my body or my face in a picture, and reminded me that even if that is the case, someone out there can see you and find you to be truly beautiful. Her hope and needs are so easy to attach to, because they’re the hopes and needs of all human beings: to be loved.
I couldn’t praise Zimmermann enough if I tried. Thinking about her singing “Lay Down Your Head” as Monty slept in her arms brings me to tears, because the character finally begins to arc as she realizes that she’s not only capable of being loved and treated with respect, but that she deserves it. Zimmermann is such a concentrated actress that even in flashback scenes in which she sits quietly downstage in character, it is hard to take your eyes off of her when the story is happening upstage with Young Violet and her father because she does not let a single thing distract her from the character she’s become. Her comedic timing is incredible, her voice is undeniably authentic and original — something hard to come by in the theatre — and her presence draws you in for more again-and-again. At one point, Flick echoes to Violet, “But you said a leading lady / is what you wanna be …” And goddamnit, that is exactly what Zimmermann is — a leading lady. I’ll say it again, Zimmermann is the only Violet.
Violet is not only a story of love, heartbreak, self-loathing, and pain, it is a smash hit. It is the first musical I’ve seen since seeing Hamilton this past spring and Wicked for the first time in 2009 before that that has kept my attention the entire time and made me want the story to never end. Any theatre-goer who would miss this production would be a fool.
Violet runs at the Queensbury Theatre (formerly the Country Playhouse) at 12777 Queensbury Ln, Houston, TX, 77024 through September 23rd. The Queensbury Theatre — while smaller in capacity — has all the makings of a stage along the Great White Way. Tickets are available here.