The San Diego Repertory Theatre is opening its 40th season with a show most typical of that gritty history, the reexamination of an obscure musical pondering core values, staged with a rough-edged integrity and moments that may lodge in thoughtful memories for another 40 years.
Violet is a gothic odyssey through the sullen south of the early 1960s by a bright but literally scarred pilgrim seeking her rightful share of the American dream. As a girl of 13, an accident with an axe left her face so disfigured that strangers recoil in shock. Now 25 and orphaned, she has cashed in her inheritance for a bus trip from her North Carolina home to Tulsa, convinced that a television evangelist there can restore her beauty.
It’s The Wizard of Oz for cynics, a picaresque tale that milks the poignancy until love wins out.
Instead of Munchkins, there are whores and crackers and church ladies and honky-tonk revelers and casual racists. This Dorothy’s Lion/Scarecrow/Tin Man chums are a couple of poker-playing soldiers she meets on the bus. But trust me, they’ll prove more true, after their wizard is exposed, than the grotesques of Oz
Sam Woodhouse shows again and again that he’s been paying close attention throughout the Rep’s 39 seasons. His staging here will win no awards but it’s inevitably wise, enabling, efficient and accessible. His casting is near impeccable and he shuffles his 11 actors through dozens of characters with something like a conjurer’s legerdemain. (Backstage during these performances must be a lonely place with just the occasional actor struggling through a quick change.)
The characters in Brian Crawley’s book (based on Doris Betts’ novel “The Ugliest Pilgrim”) are generally standard stuff, but Woodhouse fluffs each to a level of reality acceptable for the story’s needs. In this, he is assisted enormously by another cherished resource of San Diego theatre, costumer Jeanne Reith, a bearcat with period duds and, especially useful here, wigs.
(Javier Velasco gets a choreography credit here but the movement is so natural and so integrated into Woodhouse’s staging that the actors might have worked it out unassisted. But that’s just a result of clever staging.)
Violet herself, played with copious presence and warmth by Hannah Corrigan, has no visual scar. Debatable. Even if the message concerns inner beauty and so forth, a visual aid wouldn’t be out of order, given the universal reactions of horror. Corrigan certainly plays the resignation of the disfigured with consistent clarity.
Her soldiers are casually spot-on as fellow underdogs. Flick is a sergeant, still being purged of a rotten boyhood by success in the service, and Monty is a kid corporal about to enter Green Beret training before shipping out to Vietnam. Both see the depths of Violet almost immediately and both fall for her.
Rhett George is a rock of reality as the sergeant, as used to the trials of being black in a white world as Violet is to being scarred. And Jacob Caltrider is a fine and plausible comrade as a vaguely dreamy boy warrior. Author Crawley does some of his best work with these two: The sergeant’s reform-school youth is dismissed with, “I was born, the rest took care of itself.” And the corporal’s fantasies involve bareback motorcycle rides.
Crawley’s lyrics often are loaded. The multi-genre score, by rising star Jeanine Tesori, leaves him room for such lines as “Are you on your way or in the way?” for the evangelical hour and classic marching cadence for “Let It Sing,” as the sergeant makes his pitch.
The seven-piece band, headed by Korrie Paliotto, usually makes the most of some clunky orchestrations but one of the show’s biggest negatives is a botched sound system that distorts to the edge of illegibility words both spoken and sung. And doesn’t help the band, either.
Some numbers just work better than others. Anything choral seems to impress, so kudos to Paliotto. My favorite, maybe, is “Luck of the Draw,” when Violet recalls how her father taught her to play such effective poker.
That one features Jason Maddy, as the haunted father who caused that accident and could do so little about it, and young Katelyn Katz, who plays the 13-year-old Violet with such radiant grace that big things are hereby expected in her future.
The production is blessed also with the splendid Jason Heil as that TV preacher, carefully displaying a believable humanity, and a trio of mature spell-binders – Melinda Gilb, Tanika Baptiste and Anise Ritchie – with convincing featured turns and ongoing poise. Kurt Norby and Bryan Banville complete the cast but I’m still not sure there aren’t an additional couple of actors now and then.
While Trevor Norton’s lighting is solid, Giulio Cesare Perrone’s scenery is so bland it disappears. The lighted sign for the shifting locales, the assortment of chrome dinette chairs and the moveable double bed are all this show really needs anyway.
Presented by the San Diego Repertory Theatr in the the downtown Lyceum Theatre continuing at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 4 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 13, 2015.