There’s a miracle worth lining up for at the Theatre on San Pedro Square. It takes the form of a beautifully performed and soulfully written musical called Violet. It is both a whisper and a roar and it proudly shines from the inside out. Courageous and contagious, thoughtful and moving, as unpretentious as it is intricate; the Tabard Theatre Company has handled this delicate and also quite powerful piece with the ultimate intelligence, kindness and exceptional skill.
Though this award-winning show is rarely done (in part because of the particular talent required to pull it off no doubt) and has no “known” song to anchor and market itself to the masses, it has music that deeply satisfies on multiple levels. From contemporary complexity that serves as a vessel for intimate confessions to toe-tapping shout outs to the glory of possibility steeped in Americana, this show skillfully weaves its way between full-blown conversations with the universe and secretive, subconscious reflection. It takes you inside heartbreaking insecurities with ballads and it takes even the most spiritually agnostic to church with proper gospel gusto. This music is equally alive and true in the smallest of moments as it is in the biggest; an enormous challenge of balance that should not be easily dismissed.
The lyrics are tenderly poetic and while I always personally have a challenge with people bursting into song and buying into the reality of a musical in general, this show bridges that gap remarkably well with the combination of lovely composition and the artful way music is used. The music, words and plot all speak to each other. They listen to and comprehend each other also. The lack of rhymes or rhythms that seem forced, the absence of meta, self-indulgent references or overly kitsch motifs (that often pull me OUT of a story) make this an easy show to listen to; as if it was all being sincerely spoken. The music rarely feels excessive and is almost completely complimentary; gracefully moving the story forward, stepping in to fill out the layers of the narrative only when words alone would fail to convey the full emotion.
Often times a musical must first consider those that are vocally up to the task of the score while acting skills take a bit of a back seat. This music (as good as it is) and these lyrics (as fabulous as they are) require a cast that understand the material and can address the varied emotional challenge of the plays’ content. I felt very much that they ALL did. I was inspired by a cast of principals and ensemble alike, that handled the music well (and in some cases tremendously well) but who brought a stupendous heart and sincerity to the acting portion of the piece too. The moments are connected delicately, purposefully, and in some cases very humorously by a really committed, well-rounded cast of actors. This ensemble truly supports, lifts, and enhances the outstanding performances of the principals (Violet, Young Violet and Flick especially) in an integral, meaningful way. They also know how to shine individually when needed. There is a definite magic about how the ancillary cast fades in and out, becoming very different people (and scenery) without it ever feeling like a device or a gimmick. With several stand out solos and comic moments coming from the ensemble, this is a collective piece made even better by the parts of its whole.
Pacing and focus are nearly flawless thanks to clear, purposeful direction. The technical elements fit the space well, none too big, nor too skimpy or cheap. Set and costume changes don’t appear cumbersome or distracting and the space is logically and affectively used. The band staged visibly in the back was balanced and the sound filled the room as richly when one person was singing as it was when the whole cast was.
This show explores the real ugly parts of life; ignorance, prejudice, racism, and even war to a certain extent. It also explores the superficially ugly; physical and emotional scars, insecurities, loneliness, deception and guilt. Indeed, this is also a play about acceptance, hope, dreams, passion, love, bravery, perspective and leaving your comfort zone; themes I find particularly fitting for Tabard. Tabard traditionally has avoided certain mature content or adult language in its productions and while nothing in Violet is shocking, gratuitous or distasteful in ANY way, it does cover topics (with just a tiny bit of gasp… language) we haven’t seen often (if ever) from this organization. This is a wonderful step forward that will open doors I think, and I’m really pleased in the choice to tell THIS story unadulterated, despite what must have been a perceived risk initially. There are bold choices made by the characters in this show as well as by the production staff and that bravery is a sizable boon I feel for the audience lucky enough to get on this bus.
This isn’t a perfect show, and in some ways I really liked that it had a few visible flaws. Perhaps it speaks unintentionally to the themes of the play. In the end it didn’t really matter if a note fell flat or a mic went out, or a line or two seemed to miss its mark. Overall I truly enjoyed being sucked in to Violet’s world entirely and can really appreciate the work it must have taken to make it all look so effortless.
This is the type of fresh-feeling theater that is so needed right now. A restorative, celebratory and passionate voyage told gorgeously and 100% authentically. A well-deserved 4 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a compelling, joyful and poignant journey worth the ride. Violet plays through May 3rd and the Theatre on San Pedro Square in Downtown San Jose.
***Parking validated most nights at the public garage, directly across the street from the theatre.