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Theatre Review: "Violet" at Ensemble is One of Season's Best

Ensemble Theatre closes its season with a wow – a heartfelt, rousing and thoroughly feel-good, toe-tapping revival of Violet. Director D. Lynn Meyers, her creative team, and acting ensemble deliver one of the best productions on an area stage this season.

Never heard of it? Long before composer Jeanine Tesori won her Tony Award last year for mega-buzz Fun Home, she collaborated on Violet, a quiet powerhouse about another young woman with a deep soul and a big journey.

It’s 1964 and Violet carries a disfiguring scar from an adolescent accident with an ax blade and a backwoods-style surgery.

People don’t want to look at her – and her heart, under plenty of armor, cries out. ‘Look at me. Look beyond the superficial and see me. ‘

The always terrific Brooke Steele, lately most often seen as a musical comedienne, calls up her drama chops for one of the theater season’s best performances as Violet boards a cross-country bus for a life-changing pilgrimage to a TV evangelist who she believes can heal her.

Of course it’s about the journey not the destination.

Scenic designer Brian c. Mehring provide a fine sense of place and the wide open (and tightly closed) spaces of the American South, back in the early days of Civil Rights and Vietnam. He sketches in locales for our imaginations to fill in.

Time and place are also reflected in the engaging score by Tesori and lyricist/book writer Brian Crawley. From the first banjo strums, the music is American roots – folk, blues, gospel, country – but there’s a hint of Broadway, too, and even a lullaby. Gifted music director Scot Woolley leads the four-piece band.

Part of Meyers’ seamless musical adventure is Patti James’ choreography, which exactly matches the needs and spirit of the story.

Let’s keep those bests coming: Steele has plenty of support from an outrageously strong cast of local and regional actors who all play multiple roles. (Don’t you love how our home team has been shining on professional stages all season?)

First among equals is Delaney Ragusa as Young Violet, a young girl coping with an unhappy dad (Charlie Clark). The SCPA ninth-grader is The Real Deal-in-the-making. It’s always a pleasure to see Clark back at ETC and while most of the cast play multiple parts, Kate Wilford does the biggest arc, from a grandmotherly passenger on the bus ride and a Memphis madame.

CCM junior Phillip Johnson-Richardson plays Flick, a young black soldier and a romantic interest that suggests Violet’s journey won’t be over when the play ends. The hard-working cast delivering precise, if momentary, character portraits: Mark Beyer, Phil Fiorini, Stephen Kell Sara Mackie, Andrew Maloney, Patrick E. Phillips and Torie Wiggins.  

The characters couldn’t be so well drawn without costume designer Reba Senske, wig and make-up designer Kelly Yurko and dialect coach Julia Guichard.

Violet, through May 22. Ensemble Theatre, 1028 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $28-$44 adults, $25 students. 513-421-3555 and www.ensemblecincinnati.org.

Review by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts