Violet, a Theater Latté Da production at The Guthrie Theater

Violet - Britta Ollmann, Monty - Randy Schmeling, Preacher - Alan Sorenson and Young Violet - Maeve Moynihan in Theater Latté Da's production of VIOLET presented by the Guthrie Theater - Photo by Michal Daniel

Theater Latté Da’s new musical, Violet – nicely suited to the Guthrie’s black box space, the Dowling Studio Theater – is a tight little ensemble piece that spins along like the bus carrying its title character on her literal and metaphorical journey.

Weaving past and present into one (isn’t it all just one life experience, when it gets right down to it?) a small cast deftly morphs from one character to another, illuminating the Southern, 1960s milieu in which Violet, played by Britta Ollmann, struggles to come to terms with herself. The story follows her quest to be healed of her facial disfigurement, but of course that’s not her real problem. Accepting herself and forgiving her father prove to be this protagonist’s larger dilemma.

The idea of this almost works in this play; the production almost satisfies our expectation. The transformative power of love and forgiveness is a solid and lofty theme, but then the chemistry has to be there for the ensuing reaction to believably create something new.

Which is why the first act is so much more engaging than Act II. How we imagine Act II to be played out turns out to be more interesting than what we saw. We know the showdown with the preacher she has sought to heal her is coming, but it could have been a far more dramatic moment – showing, rather than telling us what we know and what Violet is only just discovering.

Ollmann finally gets to show some grit at this point, wrestling with Violet’s tangle of emotional turmoil, past and present, but as written, isn’t given the opportunity to adequately demonstrate her new-found strength and belief in herself. If the solution is finding someone who loves you as you are, the budding romance has to be believable. However, we are as confused as Violet about who – or what – she really wants. We don’t see her face her choices and then decide. Rather it appears to end with others deciding for her, and she accepts it.

Ollmann faced a challenging task to create a Violet who was both naïve and vulnerable, yet capable of taking hold of her life. She was at her finest delivering the lovely ballad, “Lay Down Your Head,” with delicate emotional nuance.

Dieter Bierbrauer, playing Violet’s father, not only sings like a dream, he pretty much commands the stage when he’s on it, showing a skilled understanding of how to manage his many emotionally powerful scenes.

Randy Schmeling and Azudi Onyejekwe offered interesting counterpoints, Randy Schmeling, as the handsome, white and immature soldier, Monty; and Azudi Onyejekwe as his steady, Black counterpart, Flick. Flick’s ability to straddle the South’s still-segregated culture and his own more magnanimous sensibilities, provides both complications and the means to a denouement.

Maeve Moynihan as the young Violet sensitively melds her character with Ollman’s; Janet Hanson as the Old Lady and Lynnea Doublette as Lula and the Music Hall Singer carry off their colorful supporting roles with aplomb. Alan Sorenson certainly had the voice and presence for the part, but his Southern gospel preacher had a curiously British accent.

Strong and interestingly conceived lyrics, in particular, power the script, set to frequently gospel-flavored music suited to the story’s premise. Live, acoustic music, delivered just upstage of the action, was pure pleasure. With its simple staging and imaginative use of suitcases and trunks, Director Peter Rothstein’s use of the space worked beautifully to carry us from place to place.

All in all, not as powerful as it might have been, but definitely a show for those who appreciate intimate, intelligent musical theater. Violet runs through March 21.

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