A couple of seasons ago at the Broadway press night of "Shrek: The Musical" — an inflated spectacle of ogres and self-aware princesses — I heard the gorgeous strum of a guitar and a yearning melody that seemed to come not from the world of big-budget, big studio irony but from some place more rooted to the earth. I remember thinking, there's "Violet."
In actuality, there was the gifted composer Jeanine Tesori, doing the kind of show that makes money but leaves the core of her music unscathed. Around 1997, a then-unknown Tesori wrote the music for a gorgeous musical, penned by Brian Crawley and based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim," a short story by Doris Betts about a poor girl from a small southern town, with a dark story and a big scar on her face. The young woman, Violet, heads off to a big city on a Greyhound bus, believing that if she only can get in front of her favorite TV preacher (the work is set in the early 1960s), the scar will be wiped away and she will, at last, be pretty.
Two years later, I reviewed the show at the late, lamented Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park and after I bought the cast recording, it became one of my favorite musicals. The music is uncommonly beautiful, the flashback structure of Crawley's book is deft and the characters are rich, complex and capable of surprise. And since, right from the start, you dread right that this preacher won't be able to wipe away the scar, the story packs an uncommon emotional intensity of the kind that stays with you for years.
"Violet" came back to Chicago on Tuesday night, in a non-Equity production from Bailiwick Chicago at the Mercury Theater (this was my first visit to that Southport Avenue venue since it re-opened, and I was reminded of the importance of this elegant venue to the Off-Loop). The good news here — and it should be enough to tempt lovers of small, serious, folk-influenced musicals to buy a ticket and hear this score — is twofold: Tesori's score is exceptionally well sung by the likes of Harmony France (in the title role), Evan Tyrone Martin (as one of the young soldiers she meets on her journey) and the delightful Glynis Gilio (as Young Violet), all under the musical direction of Andra Velis Simon.
Just as importantly, these performances are sincere and without condescension toward their rural, Southern characters, which is always a temptation in Chicago and New York. The charming, earnest France is an actress who you feel has earned the right to present the struggles of this kind of character. And actors like John B. Leen (who plays her flawed father) and Courtney Crouse (another of Violet's new friends) act their honest hearts out. In terms of the people of the story and the sepia tone set by the director, Elizabeth Margolius, the Bailiwick "Violet" is right on the money.
The less good news concerns the way Margolius presents the journey of the character, and the space in which she does so. Quite a bit of "Violet' takes place on a bus, which is visually repetitive and tricky to do. Margolius tries to solve this by creating a world in which the characters seem to be stuck in their own worlds. The effect is of a collage. One can understand why Margolius took this tack, but it comes at a price. You don't see — and thus you don't fully feel — Violet's journey. You don't feel like she's driving anywhere crucial, so the tension and passion of the piece not only dissipates, it seems to collapse internally, inside the actors doing great individual work but not fully cohering as a whole. John Zuiker's set has a huge central hole where you see, bang in the middle of the frame, Velis Simon playing keyboards. As lovely as Velis Simon is, it is a strange choice and it pulls focus from the name on the marquee.
The biggest problem, though, emerges in the second act, when Violet arrives at the preacher and has her big moment of discovery. It's the emotional and structural climax of the piece, yet you struggle to see and feel it here. There's something crucial missing. So although the pleasures here are many, you leave not wholly sure of what has happened to this most lovable of musical heroines, even as the songs dance in your head.
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 mins.
Tickets: $27.50-$32.50; 773-325-1700 or bailiwickchicago.com