Bay Area Musicals’ ‘Violet’ sends audiences on a journey to remember

Man and woman stands side by side and hold hands while singing.
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The set for “Violet” doesn’t look like much. Wooden flats line up against the back of the stage, with a single rotating platform in the middle, everything is painted a modest brown and audiences can see the orchestra through the gaps between the slats in the wood. It’s the kind of set that promises a departure from the flashiness or glitz often associated with the musical genre, an unassuming space that relies solely on the onstage talent to animate the story. Luckily, the cast of Bay Area Musicals’ “Violet” has more than enough talent to spare.

It’s fitting that the set should be so simple — “Violet” is, after all, a show about the futility of external beauty as opposed to what lies within. The one-act musical is set in 1964 and follows Violet (Juliana Lustenader) on her cross-country journey to North Carolina; she’s in search of a televangelist (Clay David) who she believes will heal the scar that cuts across the side of her face. Along the way, Violet meets soldiers Flick (Jon-David Randle) and Monty (Jack O’Reilly) and struggles with budding feelings for both on her quest for self-acceptance.

As the title might suggest, it is Lustenader who is charged with carrying the bulk of the production. Her vocal prowess is clear from the inaugural scene and maintained throughout the numerous musical numbers that follow. Most notable is Lustenader’s ability to suffuse Violet’s character with charm — whether Violet is snapping at Flick and Monty to listen to her sing or tearfully confronting her father about childhood trauma, Lustenader always has the audience in her back pocket.

Lustenader wears no makeup for her role, meaning Violet’s scar is left to the imagination (an artistic choice held over from the 2014 Broadway revival). Considering that most of the show’s thematic message rests on Lustenader — who is very obviously not ugly — decrying her supposed ugliness, this choice essentially requires the audience to beat back their disbelief with a crowbar. It’s a testament to the pathos of Lustenader’s performance that they are willing to.

The rest of the cast members, many of whom inhabit multiple roles, do a marvelous job as the supporting players in Violet’s journey. David is perfectly cast as Violet’s smarmy false hero, the televangelist; O’Reilly’s Monty is delightfully awkward, the type of man who fancies himself a womanizer but doesn’t know how to talk to a woman; Randle showcases the strongest singing of the night with standout number “Let it Sing” and Miranda Long, portraying Young Violet at a mere twelve years old, demonstrates remarkable maturity in her scenes.

Composed by Jeanine Tesori, the score for “Violet” is a patchwork of Americana tradition — the melodies dabble in genres from folk to gospel to country. It’s this music, rarely intercut with actual dialogue, that is the core of the production. Many numbers inspired whoops and standing ovations from the audience. The most obvious example of this is the kinetic “Raise Me Up,” a gospel number headed up by the sonorous Lula Buffington (Tanika Baptiste), who is living proof that no part is too small to make a lasting impression.

Altogether, “Violet” is a musical about life’s journeys, both physical and personal. And for the most part, the roughly two-hour journey that the production enfolds the audience into is a heartwarming one, filled with euphonious melodies, solid performances and the occasional good ol’ fashioned dance number.

The main character in “Violet” may feel the need to cross the country for her miracle — but the audiences at the Alcazar Theatre need to look no further than the stage.

‘Violet’ will be playing at San Francisco’s Alcazar Theatre through March 17.

Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].