Late Bloomer

In this age of simplistic moralizing, hypersensitivity and polarized opinion, it seems that only an obtuse fable with Hallmarky lyrics is considered worthy of the label "deep." Gone, sadly, are the days when composers of crowd-pleasers like South Pacific (which enjoyed an initial Broadway run of 1,925 performances), Carousel (890 performances) and West Side Story (732 performances) carefully wove their sermonizing about social issues within a rich tapestry of tonal artistry.

The dearth of finely crafted musicals is even more disturbing given the sheer numbers of artists who can handle material that's far more subtle than a Hall of Fame special. That's the case with Violet, which is being given its regional premiere at the Arvada Center. The story, written in 1997 and based on The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, concerns a disfigured woman who must learn to embrace her inner beauty -- an idea that certainly resonates in a world that champions style over substance. And Jeanine Tesori's eclectic score, which is a mixture of bluesy ballads, bluegrass tunes and gospel numbers, ingratiates itself even before a roofless, sideless Greyhound bus magically appears with a group of singing passengers (the clever setting was designed by Charles Dean Packard).

Try as it might, though, the company can't compensate for the weaknesses in Brian Crawley's book and lyrics. Long after we've been introduced to Violet, whose face was forever scarred after a fateful encounter with a stray ax, we keep wondering why we should harbor more than a passing concern for any of the characters.

Part of the problem is that the play never offers more than a surface examination of their plight. The overall sense of camaraderie is affecting, as is Violet's embarrassment at always having to cover one half of her face with her hair (the scar itself is left to the audience's imagination). But the dynamics that define each individual are never really developed, and it's even more difficult to become involved in the story when it belabors the obvious: Looks are only skin deep, and the keys to meaningful change lie within each person, not without. When that point is "hammered" home with seriously intoned lyrics like "There are two kinds of people in this world/Those who say yes and those who say no/Take your pick -- eenie, meenie, minie, mo," it's clear that this musical parable has little to say that hasn't been more imaginatively said. Even Beauty and the Beast coaxes audiences to care about its characters while shamelessly plugging Disney's brand of entertainment.

That said, director Rod A. Lansberry, aided by a solid cast and pleasing production values, provides Tesori and Crawley's work with a competent staging. And the singers' voices, smartly accompanied by a six-piece onstage band, are in excellent form throughout, especially during several group numbers, such as an intriguing quintet in Act One ("Luck of the Draw") that shines with spunky charm. Furthermore, the performers succeed in taking each character on his or her own terms, resisting, for the most part, the temptation to embellish or improve upon the playwright's threadbare creations.

Reyna Von Vett endows the role of Violet with a mixture of deep-seated passion and shoot-from-the-lip moxie. As her two traveling companions, the strong-voiced duo of Kingsley Leggs and Christopher Coyne are appropriately boisterous one moment and flummoxed the next. Mark Devine renders the flawed faith healer as something of a spiritual car salesman, but allows his nagging sense of self-doubt to peek through now and then. (Incidentally, current Denver Center Theatre Company actor Robert Westenberg performed the role of the minister in the original off-Broadway version.)

But the best performances come from Shayna Mordue and Randy St. Pierre, who, as young Violet and her father, respectively, prove capable of evoking considerable feeling and sentiment in the space of a single glance or musical phrase. It's a hopeful sign -- albeit too late in the game here -- that modern composers are still capable of crafting lyrical stories that broaden our capacity for wonderment.

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Jim Lillie

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