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The Barksdale's latest is everything a musical can be and more.

"Violet" Victorious

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"Violet"
Barksdale Theatre
The Shops at Willow Lawn
Through Oct. 16
$28.50
282-2620

Someone go fetch me a thesaurus because I think I'm going to run out of superlatives before this review is done. The Barksdale Theatre just opened a thoroughly enchanting new musical called "Violet" that proves that Disney and Frank Wildhorn haven't yet strangled all the life out of the American musical. Energized by a diverse and peppy score and featuring superb performances, this production is everything a musical can be and more: charming but challenging, unsettling but uplifting. If "Violet" doesn't take root in your heart, you're using the wrong fertilizer.

As directed by Jack Cummings III, the show follows a familiar formula but provides constant surprises along the way. Violet (Debra Wagoner) is a young woman who was disfigured in an accident as a teen-ager. The play chronicles her journey from rural North Carolina to Tulsa, Okla., where she hopes a televangelist will use his healing power to remove the hideous scar from her face. It's 1964, and on the bus trip to Tulsa she meets up with two soldiers, one black and one white, who are both attracted to Violet's tough but tender personality.

You may figure out exactly where this story is going well before it gets there, but Cummings makes the trip interesting nevertheless. The director orchestrates a bustling promenade of chairs and actors to keep the pace lively. Flashback scenes that feature a young Violet (Suzanne Casey) and her father (Thom Moore) are spliced seamlessly into the present action.

Cool lighting effects (designed by R. Lee Kennedy) enhance nearly every scene. Most admirably, the director uses a light touch to make effective points about racism and inner vs. outer beauty without clobbering the audience over the head.

"Violet's" cast turns every potential pitfall in the script into a plus. The character of Violet could have been either unbelievably pitiable or unrealistically spunky. As played by Wagoner, her wounded heart is palpable, but so is her indomitable spirit. All the leads — in fact all of the actors in the production — do a fabulous job, but special praise must be allotted for some of the ensemble players. Robert Throckmorton's televangelist could have been just one-note comic relief. But Throckmorton gives this bit part compelling depth. And as young Violet, Casey could have been another child actor in over her head. Instead, she expertly mirrors Wagoner's courage and charisma.

The score, skillfully performed by musical director Jose C. Simbulan's tuneful trio, gives this talented cast great material to work with. The dominant tone is slow and bluesy but it is punctuated by country twang in songs like "All to Pieces" and gospel fervor in "Raise Me Up." One standout is the inspirational "Let It Sing" that Rodney Hobbs, playing the black soldier, Flick, turns into a First Act show stopper.

"Violet" may not appeal to everyone, with its dark undertones and wry wit. But if you are looking for something marvelously different that's full of insight and humor, this show will leave you satisfied. In my thesaurus, "Violet" is synonymous with

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