By Charles J. Morgan
The noir musical “Violet,” based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, opened last Saturday at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts. But what is a noir musical? Is it an opera, rock or otherwise? Is it sad, heart-rending, tragic, on a level with “La Bohème”? Your scribe suggests it is somewhere between Rossini’s effort and the recent “Murder Ballard” — the former an illustrious work of art, the latter the apotheosis of poor taste. “Violet,” therefore, is a middle ground, standing across the road as a signpost directing the theatrical traveler to the crossroads of mediocrity. Take one of the forks: aesthetic satisfaction; take the other — “…’n I wuz like wow!”
There are noir motion pictures too. They all occur in one noir night, in noir and white and always have plot lines involving a murder solution. It makes one wonder why noir musicals are penned in the first place. Presumably they were intended to pitch shock and schlock into the roiling sea of praise poured onto the “happy ending” dance and song of the major hits. In your scribe’s not-so-humble opinion, “Violet” is a classically flawed work hinging on the fact of a young girl’s face horribly disfigured by a flying axe blade. At this juncture one could rank it with the Parisian Theatre Guignol.
Now then, standing back from all of the above, there was the indomitable Ken Washington direction. As his ever present skills reveal, interpretation and blocking were kept well ahead of the pursuing nemesis stasis. A pitfall of the one-set production is always a threat, but Washington came through. He handled the individuation of characters by giving them fast and slow motion that kept the boards well trod.
In the obviously starring role of Violet was Samantha Carroll. In singing and acting she was outstanding. With a fetching stage presence, she coupled this with a delightful soprano voice. With scarcely an exit she was easily the jeweled bearing on which the dynamic of the show rotated.
Two male singers vied for her attention … her complete attention. One, a sergeant; the other a Tech 4. The sergeant (Flick) was Jay McKenzie, the Tech 4 (Monty) was Bobby Peterson. McKenzie was the cool, veteran soldier with a strong tenor. In Act II his duet with Carrol was very impressive.
Peterson was more than just a foil for the sergeant. His voice was robust with a lyric tenor closeness that expressed his simple love for Violet. Michael Bertolini doubled as the bus driver and, in a powerful cameo, a corrupt Bible-thumper. He sang and danced with a group of pretend Bible singers. Viewing it your scribe felt Catholics in the audience would wear a wry grin; Evangelicals would have picketed that “preacher’s” performance.
As Young Violet, Hayleigh Jusas revealed excellent stage presence and a strong voice. In the “preacher” segment one ultra-powerful voice stood out: that of Amanda Camille Isaac. It was powerful, smooth and wrought with strength that not only expressed her religious fervor but rattled the rafters.
Music was live under the direction of Melissa Coyle with Craig Coyle on second keyboard, Ron Curry on bass, Jim Waddell on drums. Tiffany Jordan on cello, Brad Bosenbeck on violin and two guitars handled by Ray Sabatello and Douglas Baldwin provided palpable background, effecting it all with no brass.
“Violet” was a completely well-executed noir piece. It was balanced with other than rock, pertinent, believable recitatives and tender solos. To your scribe it was a critical challenge. To the audience it was a treat.
The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown, will present ‘Violet’ through May 17. Tickets are $35 adults, $20 students. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.