There is no one — no one — writing better music for the stage today than Jeanine Tesori. She wrote the music for two masterpieces — “Caroline, or Change” with Tony Kushner and “Fun Home” with Lisa Kron, which deservedly won last year’s Tony Award for best score and is still on Broadway. But SpeakEasy Stage Company invites you to start at the beginning with a lovely production of her first musical, “Violet,” which she wrote with Brian Crawley (through Feb. 6) in 1997.
“Violet,” based on Doris Betts’ “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” isn’t in the same category as her later work, but this is still a strong, soulful one-act that — like many of the great musicals of the golden age — tells the story of a woman’s journey from naivete to a fuller, more sophisticated knowledge of life and its complexities. If “Caroline, or Change” is her “Eroica,” this is her Beethoven’s First which, you know, is none too shabby. (Maybe “Thoroughly Modern Millie” was Tesori’s second symphony?)
Violet was deeply scarred in a childhood accident when her father’s ax blade flew off its handle and hit her in the face. As a young woman she’s determined to travel by Greyhound Bus, from North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in order to find a faith healer who, she’s convinced, can heal her scar. If that’s not “Wizard of Oz” enough for you, along the way she meets up with two men who have their own problems.
Tesori gives her the perfect musical accompaniment — a lot of gospel, a little c&w and r&b and a couple of beautiful ballads. It never feels, though, as if Tesori is misappropriating these genres, but smoothly integrating them into her own musical-theater vocabulary. As in the best of musical theater, there are numbers like “Lay Down Your Head” that stand on their own, but that also advance the story.
(Nobody stands alone better than Audra McDonald.)
This is the second time SpeakEasy Stage has done “Violet,” the first coming in 2000. The current one is based on last year’s Broadway production, but I much prefer both SpeakEasy stagings to the Broadway version. This is a musical that gains much from its intimacy with the audience. (Unfortunately, the miking sometimes seemed more geared for a larger Broadway house or — if only — the Colonial Theatre.)
The difference between the two SpeakEasy productions is striking, at least as I remember the 2000 production. That one introduced an Elliot Norton-award singer named Bridget Beirne, who went off to New York before too long.
Both productions were directed by Paul Daigneault, SpeakEasy artistic director, but Daigneault has grown as an artist. And SpeakEasy has grown as an institution — the new production is at the Boston Center for the Arts' mainstage, the Wimberly Theatre, rather than down the street at the smaller theater. More important, this “Violet” feels a little less nice, more hard-headed and sophisticated. That all begins with casting Alison McCartan in the title role. SpeakEasy patrons will remember her as the hellbent-for-latkes cousin in “Bad Jews,” a performance that some found overstated — I thought it was hilarious and on target.
She isn’t that harsh here, but she comes at the part like one of Lucia Berlin’s (“A Manual for Cleaning Women”) protagonists — tougher and less naïve than Beirne or Sutton Foster on Broadway. If she doesn’t have Beirne’s and Foster’s vocal power, she and Daigneault make some acting choices that add dimension and strength to the character. And her singing is fine, even if she doesn’t bring down the house. But others do, namely Dan Belvanis as the African-American soldier, Flick, who is wooing Violet in quite a different way than his compatriot, Monty (Nile Scott Hawver).
Daigneault has assembled an excellent supporting cast — Michael Mendiola is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking as Violet’s father; Kathy St. George, playing a number of characters, is always a hoot. (John F. King is a little too over the top as the stick-figure preacher.) The design team is first-rate.
First and foremost, there is excellent attention to musical detail. The musicians assembled by Matthew Stern bring a sparkling authenticity to the songs, whether rooted in Memphis country or New York city (or both). And Daigneault has assembled members of local choirs to make the gospel ring out even more. The music stands out much more than it did 16 years ago.
“Violet” isn’t “Fun Home.” The living-in-your-skin resolution is too instantaneous and unearned. Lyricist and book writer Brian Crawley is not in Kushner’s or Kron’s league. But like all her work, her collaboration with Crawley is deeply humanistic. They have a feel for life’s underdogs. No matter whom Tesori is working with she makes you root for her characters, and gives you just the right musical accompaniment for your cheers.
Jeanine Tesori will do a talkback with SpeakEasy Stage Company following the Thursday, Jan. 21 performance.
Ed Siegel is critic at large and editor of The ARTery.