Bailiwick Chicago’s ‘Violet’ bursts with color and light

Glynis Gilio (Young Violet) and Harmony France (Violet) in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of “Violet.”

While Violet, a musical by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (book and lyrics), only ran for a month Off-Broadway in 1997, it made a real mark in the theatre community, winning several Off-Broadway awards including the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award as Best Musical. I’d heard of the show for years, but beyond the beautiful act one closing number “Lay Down Your Head,” which was featured on an Audra McDonald solo album, I knew nothing of the score or story.

So, I was very excited when Bailiwick Chicago announced this show in early 2011. Following a few delays and a last-minute venue changeup, the resourceful Bailiwick Chicago pulled it together and is offering a beautifully realized production of this rarely produced work at the Mercury Theatre.

Violet, which takes place in 1964, tracks the journey of a determined young woman named Violet (Harmony France) who bears a significant facial disfigurement accidentally caused by the slip of an ax held by her father. Having endured this scar since childhood, Violet, now in her mid-20s, takes it upon herself to board the Greyhound to seek redemption and facial restoration from a showy televangelist three states away. Along the way, she meets several colorful characters, including two young soldiers, Monty and Flick (Courtney Crouse and Evan Tyrone Martin), who are drawn to Violet’s raw grit. Violet forges a special connection to Flick, a black man, as they’ve both experienced bigotry due to physical appearance.

I love that this musical focuses on the journey rather than the destination, and Violet’s transformation along the way is remarkable. Director and movement coordinator Elizabeth Margolius maintains a surreal and (quite literally) foggy tone as Violet swings between her past and present self (her younger counterpart is played by the promising Glynis Gilio) as she seeks clarity for her future. Outstanding supporting work by the ensemble is both well acted and sung.

Violet is the role of a lifetime for any actress. A naturally aggressive performer with a powerful vocal range, France finds the anger and drive within this multi-layered young woman, but has some growth in exploring her vulnerability. Still, it’s a praise-worthy performance and perhaps a break-out role for France.

From acting and music direction to lighting, set and costume design, this is a production very much worth seeing. Whether by Greyhound, taxi or train, get your tail down to the Mercury Theatre for this lovely, hopeful and touching musical about redemption and new beginnings.

“Violet,” presented by Bailiwick Chicago, plays through October 16 at the Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport Ave. More info here >

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