Jeanine Tesori had a vintage year in 2018 with the arrival of her Broadway hit FUN HOME at the Young Vic, an acclaimed revival of CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (still playing in the West End) and successful UK tours of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE and SHREK. Charing Cross Theatre has now staged her debut work VIOLET, first seen Off-Broadway in 1997, in its first UK outing.
It’s unbelievable, given Tesori’s presence in UK theatre, that it’s taken this long for VIOLET to be seen in London. The music is a beautiful fusion of modern American genres, incorporating country, gospel, bluegrass and rock and roll. Tesori’s melodies are matched harmoniously with Brian Crawley’s thoughtful lyrics. VIOLET has a score much deserved of being heard this side of the Atlantic.
VIOLET follows a woman, facially disfigured as a child, on a journey across the Southern heartlands of 1962 America on a Greyhound bus in order to be healed by God. As the eponymous heroine, Kaisa Hammarlund is phenomenal in the role. Hammarlund performance will come as no surprise to those who have seen her on stage before. Her performance in FUN HOME at the Young Vic was superb, as was her leading turn at the Royal Exchange in SWEET CHARITY, but her role in VIOLET is a match made in musical theatre heaven. She is fiery, bold and committed as well as totally heartbreaking. She is a unique find as a leading lady in her acting fully matching her outstanding singing voice. Hammarlund is a dream in the role.
She is superbly supported in the role by an exceptional cast, performing with full commitment and passion in a variety of roles. Particularly Jay Marsh and Matthew Harvey, as the reluctant soldiers whose journey becomes intertwined with Violet’s, have both phenomenal voices. Marsh brings the house down midway through the show in ‘Let it Sing’ whilst Harvey shows off his tenor belt in ‘Last Time I Came to Memphis’. The entire ensemble really pull their weight. The harmonies in ‘On My Way’ are spine tingling. But note has to be given to Simbi Akande, whose vocal performance is astonishingly good in ‘Lonely Stranger’ and ‘Raise Me Up’.
Shuntaro Fujita’s staging is visually striking but lacks absolute focus. In fairness, this isn’t helped by Brian Crawley’s book which, whilst fully engaging, is sometimes confusing in its transitions between the past and present. The pacing is sometimes off and does drag in it’s church scenes towards, although this is something that can definitely be tightened up. That said, Fujita and Crawley do fully convey, in production and script, the sweat and suffocation of 1960s middle America.
Morgan Large deserves mega kudos not only for the set design, but the transformation of the Charing Cross Theatre space. Normally end on, the Charing Cross Theatre has often given the visual of looking down a tunnel with only the first few rows able to fully engage in the performances. The traverse configuration works wonders for the space and I hope it’s something they consider implementing in future productions. Large’s rustic / stylised set is implemented with considerable detail, with the turntable set inventively used in the space and production. The over-amplified sound in the space needs some work with some moments drowned out by the band. However, given the total transformation of the playing space and a short preview period, we should give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.
VIOLET’S belated UK arrival is a must see for any fan of musical theatre. The Charing Cross Theatre has proved yet again that under the leadership of Thom Sutherland, it’s a home for thrilling stage productions of less popular musicals. VIOLET boasts a beautiful score matched by an impressive cast, with Kaisa Hammarlund particularly proving why she’s one of the best leading ladies in London.
VIOLET runs at Charing Cross Theatre until 6th April. Tickets are on sale now.