That’s the first thing you see when you walk into the Front Porch Theatricals production of Violet. They fill a wall of shelves along the upstage wall of the space, and are also tucked underneath the platform on which the eight-piece orchestra plays. And as the musical progresses, suitcases of varying shapes, sizes, and colors serve not only as backdrop but also as props and furniture, becoming bus seats, card tables, the counter of a café, a bed, and even a candy tray.
It’s an apt choice of object for this play, which is set in 1964 and is about a young woman, Violet (Elizabeth Boyke), who embarks on bus journey from North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma with the purpose of imploring a televangelist faith healer to work a miracle and heal a horrific scar on her face. She’s got a lot of emotional and psychological baggage that she’s carrying with her on this journey in addition to the little yellow valise that holds her belongings: the scar, a result of an accident involving her father’s axe, has made her a social pariah in her small town, and has left her with mixed feelings towards her recently deceased father (played by Jonathan Visser), as well. But the two soldiers she befriends on the long bus journey – a white corporal named Monty (Daniel Mayhak) and a black sergeant named Flick (Lamont Walker II) – see past her scar, and their desire for her becomes a catalyst for her to jettison that baggage and heal from the inside out.
The story is actually a bit more complicated than that, and on many levels it doesn’t fully make sense. The compression of time in the play makes many of its developments perplexing, because there doesn’t seem to be quite enough room for the characters to evolve properly over the course of the play. Moreover, contradictions that might make for more complex characters in a drama or short story – where dialogue could help develop psychological depth – become simply puzzling in the shorthand world of the musical. So, for example, we see Violet and Flick fall in-love-at-first-sight, but then the fact of racial difference rears its ugly head, and she ends up sleeping with Monty. Then Monty, who claims repeatedly that he’s only interested in quick hookups with women, suddenly has a change of heart and ends up proposing marriage to her, with seeming sincerity. But in the end– after a confusing sequence in which she thinks her face has been fixed – Violet rejects Monty to be with Flick, even though she seemed, in earlier scenes, to have closed the door on that relationship. Add to this the mysterious evaporation, in the musical’s final moments, of the threat of racist violence that hovered over earlier hints of romance between Flick and Violet, and this viewer was left wondering whether librettist Brian Crawley was attempting some miracles of his own in order to achieve his desired resolution.
But this is, after all, first and foremost a musical, so it’s probably bad form to demand too much detail or realism from the plot. In the matters that really count, the musical shines. The music – composed by Jeanine Tesori, of Fun Home fame – is glorious, ranging from folk to bluegrass to pop-rock to gospel, with a few anthems and ballads in between, and under Deana Muro’s agile music direction, the cast and orchestra bring it home.
Boyke is steely and tough as Violet, with a clear voice and big emotional and vocal range, embodying both the cynicism of a woman who has spent most of her life enduring rejection and the naïve hope of a child who needs, more than anything, to believe that miracles are real. Walker is charismatic and magnetic as Flick, and he possesses a gorgeously smooth tenor voice that brings down the house in the ballad “Let it Sing.” As Monty, Daniel Mayhak plays the entitled handsome white boy with humor and charm, and he produces a lovely bit of humor when he channels his inner Pavarotti to woo Violet.
The three main characters are supported by an ensemble that is uniformly excellent. Deserving special mention are Missy Moreno, who brings a big voice and drop-dead presence to a blues number in the Memphis club scene, and Gena Sims, who knocks a gospel solo out of the ballpark in the delightfully over-the-top televangelist service. Equally terrific are Becki Toth as the old lady on the bus; Erich Lascek as the shaking-with-the-spirit, snake-oily Preacher; David Leong as his gatekeeping assistant; and Samantha Lucas and Jonathan Visser as the wide-eyed young Violet and her guilt-ridden father.
The versatile orchestra effortlessly shifts between musical styles, and the musicians – who are visible throughout the performance – are almost as much fun to watch as the cast as they bob and sway to the beat; during the showstopping gospel number “Raise Me Up” Keyboardist Tim Tucker’s hands seem to take on a life of their own, dancing across the keys with utter abandon.
An unruly sound system at times undermines the beautiful vocal work of the cast; the microphone levels are all over the place, making some voices suffer distortion while others are barely audible. But this is the one weakness in an otherwise technically strong production. Annemarie Duggan’s nimble lighting design transforms Jonmichael Bohach’s minimalist, suitcase-centered scenic design into a number of convincing locales, including a steamy blues club and the interior of a megachurch. Director Robyne Parrish has staged the action with flair, taking good advantage of the flexibility of the scene and lighting design to make smooth, flowing transitions from moment to moment, and in many places she manages to achieve the impression that the cast is twice its size. That effect is enhanced by Kim Brown’s splendid costumes, which not only ground the play in its mid-1960s time period but also help create the illusion that the world of the play is populated by a vast panoply of characters.
In the end, that full world of characters comes together, baggage-free at last, to affirm what Violet has learned on her journey: “If I show you the darkness I hold inside/Will you bring me to light?” It’s a final, rousing, pop-rock anthem that reminds us there really are no miracles that will heal us. Sometimes we just have to let go and move on.