A Soaring ‘Violet’ at SLOC

The chance to go on a real emotional journey with a musical’s book is a treat, but the opportunity is there for you to sink your teeth into at Schenectady Light Opera Company’s Violet – even in the opening number, set on the Greyhound bus where the majority of the action takes place. The show just keeps advancing. Under the direction of TJ Collins and James Alexander, Violet is a very specific story that people can understand no matter what their life’s circumstance: hope in the face of the seemingly impossible, and a want for a life different than the one that you have. 

Allie Mantica and Rylie Huang / Courtesy of SLOC.

Violet is based on the Southern Gothic short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, originally published in The Red Clay Reader. Violet Karl, a girl in her late twenties marred by a gruesome scar inflicted from an accident involving an ax blade, boards a bus from Spruce Pine, South Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma with hopes to be healed by a televangelist. Along the way, she meets Flick and Monty – two Army boys traveling to their next destination. SLOC’s version uses some simple chairs and a bar to illustrate many locations, but one is never lost for setting. Some of the dialogue was missing for me, under the volume of the beautiful score. I still fully understood the plot from the wonderful visual storytelling, especially Dimitri Vasilakos’ lighting design. 

Allie Mantica’s Violet soars from the moment the audience lays eyes on her. She’s a very lovable and rough-around-the-edges heroine. You find yourself rooting for her healing miracle – despite the almost inevitable knowledge that nothing would change her face. Violet’s glimpses of hope for her future face and self make the trip back to reality all the more devastating. Mantica has a brilliant, sometimes smoky voice, and she does fantastic work with Flick and Monty as their respective relationships are played out. Mantica feels the soul in the music and her character – it’s there in every step of her bright white keds. 

Capital Region newcomer Zach Kaiser delivers a tremendous Flick. His “Let It Sing” gave me chills and drew me in closer to his attention for Mantica’s Violet. I stood up at intermission and confidently asserted to my company for the evening – I am certainly Team Flick. I was affirmed in my choice by the end of the show. Kaiser’s Flick is tender, invested, and humble. I enjoyed seeing the many layers of conflict within his character. I couldn’t tell if that abundant humility was Kaiser or just his character – maybe both, but he should be quite proud of the work he does in this show.

I don’t know that “Violet” has a villain, per se – maybe society’s expectations of beauty, the predatory nature of televangelism, or the idea of loneliness and what it can make a person do. I also don’t know that Monty was meant to help Violet on her journey; that’s what makes him such a great character. Nonetheless, Samuel Evans sings through the character of Monty eloquently. He is a womanizer, and he knows it. I loved how quickly Evans’ Monty provided intimacy and connection to Mantica’s Violet – and how he just as quickly took it away. Evans worked with Kaiser very well, their friendship felt storied. 

The biggest surprise for this writer came in the second act work from the ensemble – namely Samara Miller’s Lula Buffington and Sean Baldwin’s… well, everything. They really kept the show moving, both physically and emotionally. Two even played instruments! Vocally, Alexander must be commended for his ensemble’s fantastic blending in the group singing aspects of this score. I must also commend the hard work of Rylie Huang as “Young Vi” – this role is no joke, it is heavy lifting for a young actor. She handles the origin of Violet Karl with grace. It’s very emotionally charged; still Huang was a thrill to watch – especially in contrast with her cold-shouldered Dad (Stephen Foust) in Violet’s flashbacks. The image of her raising her hands in praise to the televangelist stays in my mind’s eye quite clearly. 

SLOC presents a gorgeous story here with wonderful themes. While I am actually a young woman with a scar on her face that she has prayed could go away once or twice, I think that other people will appreciate the evolving feelings of Violet on her journey – especially how it is presented here in Schenectady, with dashes of hope and lots of light. We all have considered the lengths that we might go to so that our lives could turn out differently, in a way that’s a little more like the movies… but maybe what has happened in our lives is just what we actually needed. That realization can be movie-star beautiful too. 

A standing ovation well deserved at SLOC.

“Violet” runs through May 15th at SLOC. Tickets can be purchased here.

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