THE BASICS: VIOLET, a musical by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (book and lyrics), directed by Susan Drozd, starring Michele Marie Roberts, Patrick Cameron, Dudney Joseph, Jr., Ben Michael Moran, Jeffrey Coyle, introducing 7th grader Maria Farugia (as young Violet), along with 6 other actors, runs through December 3, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, Sundays at 2 at MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main Street, Amherst (839-8540). www.musicalfare.com Beautiful lounge with full service bar, ample parking (suggestion: enter from Getzville Road, not Main Street for easier access). Runtime: 2 hours, 15 minutes including one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: It’s 1964 and Violet, having suffered a childhood farming accident (an axe head flew off and hit her in the face) is both hyper-sensitive to how some perceive her and yet, sadly blind to other’s affections. Now, grown up, Violet has left her hardscrabble country home in Spruce Pine, NC for Tulsa where she hopes that a televangelist can do for her what doctors can’t. On the long bus ride, she meets two young soldiers who try to give her different doses of “reality” but, her mind is made up.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Right off, let me clue you to a new star, 7thgrader Maria Farugia. She’s the daughter of Buffalo actor and composer (PRETTY BABY) Phil Farugia. Now, in general, I don’t like children, I don’t think that they are all that “cute,” and I especially don’t like children on stage. I don’t like MATILDA and I’m embarrassed for comedian Steve Harvey having to host “Little Big Shots.” But this Maria Farugia is something else, and it’s not a “kid’s role” where she makes an appearance in Act I and then goes backstage to finish her homework. Here, Farugia as “Young Violet” and Michele Marie Roberts as adult “Violet” appear in scenes together all through the evening and it adds a haunting element that was new to me. I liked it.
Speaking of Michele Marie Roberts, damn she’s good. (Remember EVITA?) She can act and she can sing. Oh, yes, what a set of pipes. When you go, don’t be distracted by the fact that she isn’t scarred. There’s a reason for that, which becomes obvious at the end.
The three men she meets on her journey of discovery are right up there with Roberts in terms of talent. Fans of Irish Classical Theater who were impressed by Patrick Cameron’s portrayal of Chance Wayne in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH will want to see his “somewhat confused young man” character Monty in this production of VIOLET. The other traveling soldier, Flick, is played by SOPHISTICATED LADIES star Dudney Joseph, Jr. who also has a mean set of pipes. And, equally at home on many stages throughout WNY, the smooth, urbane Ben Michael Moran channels that charm into the cynical Elmer Gantry world of the televangelist.
The rest of the cast does a fine job, in named roles, but also as utility players, and SOPHISTICATED LADIES fans will want to know that Annette Christian is back on stage, here in the “Gospel Singer” character.
It’s not quite the same, not quite as hillbilly, but if you enjoyed the music in the movie ‘O, Brother, where art thou?’ you will love the score here.
The usual MusicalFare off stage quartet of Theresa Quinn, piano; Dave Siegfried, bass; Larry Albert, guitar, and Peggy Scalzo, drums delivered very impressively in a wide variety of “country” genres. It’s not quite the same, not quite as hillbilly, but if you enjoyed the music in the movie “O, Brother, where art thou?” you will love the score here. And there’s a surprise treat. The Artie Award winning, super talented Joseph Donohue III (recently seen in LET CHI ENTERTAIN YOU and before that as Jerry Lee Lewis in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET) plays the violin/fiddle. Is there anything this guy can’t do? My favorite song was “All To Pieces” reminiscent of Gram Parson’s “Luxury Liner,” a hit for EmmyLou Harris.
The MusicalFare production team was at the top of their game. Set designs by Chris Schenk always convey the time and place and the mood of the show so well, aided by stunning lighting by Chris Cavanagh. Costumes, hair, wigs, and make-up by Kari and Susan Drozd were effective too.
Now, on to the bad stuff. The show lasts two and a quarter hours which is too long. It’s not that the last quarter hour dragged; it didn’t. But getting there took too long, several of the songs go on a bit much and there are too many of them, with 37 listed (including 3 “transitions” and 4 “reprises”). A little cut here and there would be appreciated.
My other complaint is that when I go to the theater I like to laugh and especially at a musical I like to cry. Unfortunately, here I did neither. And I’m not sure why, so I won’t conjecture.
But go to see some of the best actors we have in town.
NEXT UP: not in the MusicalFare theater proper, but in the large Premier Cabaret space (which serves as the lounge during regular performances) are a series of shows: Phil Sims “Big Band Holiday 2017” plays at 4 and 8 on Saturday, December 9, while a quintet of MusicalFare regulars including John Fredo and Amy Jakiel present “A Musical Theatre Christmas,” a revue at 4 and 8 on Saturday, December 16. In the new year there are Premier Cabaret events scheduled for January 20th, January 27th, and, back by popular demand, LET CHI ENTERTAIN YOU: THE REVIVAL with comedienne Charmagne Chi and Joseph Donahue III with two shows, 6 p.m. and 10, on Saturday, February 3.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!