Chicago Theatre Review
The Beauty Within
Violet – Griffin Theatre
Concerning this much-respected company’s 30th season curtain-raiser, there’s only one word to describe Scott Weinstein’s gorgeous production, and that’s captivating. This heartbreaking musical play pulsates with melancholy and warmth. Weinstein’s enthralling production is chorally guided by musical director John Cockerill, who also supports the cast with his talented, five-member backstage band. This homey folk operetta, under Mr. Weinstein’s expert direction, unfolds at a gentle, uninterrupted pace, telling the story of a sad young woman who finally discovers the beauty within herself as she learns to accept the imperfections in others.
Nicole Laurenzi gives the breakout performance of her young career in the title role of this modest 1997 musical. With a face that speaks volumes, even long before Ms. Laurenzi ever opens her mouth, this terrific actress takes theatergoers with her on a journey of emotion and learning. She’s the strongest reason for seeing Griffin’s season opener. The musical is based upon Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” adapted here in Brian Crawley’s libretto and lyrics. The scrumptious score by Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home”) offers a varied country, blue grass and gospel-infused score that elevates this tale to a high level of enjoyment. And Ms. Laurenzi’s soaring vocal achievements and delicate acting choices take the production to the next level, creating one of this season’s most vibrant performances in recent memory. The story of a disfigured farm girl who spends her life savings on a bus ticket from North Carolina to Oklahoma, hoping to miraculously cure a facial scar by a television faith healer, is nothing, if not predictable. But, thanks to Ms. Laurenzi and the rest of the talented ensemble, musical magic transcends the tale.
Along the way, Violet encounters several memorable characters who help tell her story. Sarah Hayes portrays a pricelessly opinionated Old Lady, who provides some of the show’s comic relief. The actress reappears later as a desperate Hotel Hooker. Lula, played by gifted Lashera Zenise Moore, is a soulful gospel singer with jaw-dropping vocal chops. She leads an equally talented church choir in the rousing “Raise Me Up.” The singers are Ms. Hayes, Nick Druzbanski and Brianna Buckley, who also plays a smooth-sounding Music Hall Singer.
Both Will Lidke and Stephen Allen, who spend the play competing for Violet’s attention at every turn, are two young army recruits named Monty and Flick. Both talented actors have been seen all over Chicagoland in many musicals, but they emerge here as a couple of exciting young talents to be watched. Anthony Kayer is both coarse and charismatic as the Preacher, whether giving a rousing sermon or inspiring the choir to soar with spirit. And special credit goes to Kayer, Druzbanski and Connor Batty, all of whom create a trio of very diverse Bus Drivers, all equally realistic and funny. Matt W. Miles is excellent, dynamic and multilayered as Violet’s Father. The best moment in this production is a poignant scene between Miles and Ms. Laurenzi, inspired by his plaintive solo, “That’s What I Could Do.” And Maya Lou Hlava, who recently co-starred in the Writers Theatre production of “Trevor,” is sweetly heartbreaking and authentic here as Young Violet.
Lauren Nigri’s two-level, weathered, barn wood scenic design, gently accented with watercolor-inspired mountains, offers versatility and plenty of performance space. Blessedly performing without electronic amplification, the cast’s voices fill this space with natural sound. Alexander Ridgers’ lighting illuminates nicely and creates the required mood; and Izumi Inaba has nicely costumed her cast in authentic costumes from 1960’s.
This bittersweet, musical road story is also a journey toward self discovery. It’s one young woman’s captivating, heartbreaking trip down the road to acceptance. Along the way we get glimpses of her past to understand what made Violet the young, insecure woman she’s become. The girl’s perseverance, her sheer passion to overcome difficulty and achieve her goal is what makes this heartbreaking musical so captivating.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 26-January 13 by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre’s Upstairs Mainstage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-697-3830 or by going to www.griffintheatre.com.
Additional information bout this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.