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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Jeanine Tesori’s music is but one of many miracles in ‘Violet’ at the Chance Theater

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Rebeka Hoblik as young Violet, left, and Monika Peña as her grown-up self in “Violet.”
(Doug Catiller / True Image Studio)

It seems appropriate that a musical about miracles is itself a bit of a wonder.

Introduced off-Broadway in 1997 and produced on Broadway in 2014, “Violet” has secured a cadre of fans but no lasting place on the stage. Not yet, at least, but more productions like the spirited one at the Chance Theater in Anaheim could turn the tide.

The show is notable for containing the first score by Jeanine Tesori, who went on to write the music for such contemporary classics as “Caroline, Or Change” and “Fun Home.” The songs jump, pulse and soar. They are the piece’s heartbeat.

Doubts begin to arise, though, if viewers take the story too literally. Better, then, to read this as a fable, which the idealized characterizations and straightforwardly presentational style of the Chance’s production invite us to do.

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The story unfolds in early September 1964 as civil rights, the stirrings of war and a lifestyle revolution are about to change America.

None of that might at first seem to concern the title character, who has grown up in a small North Carolina town and lived half of her 20-some years with a facial disfigurement caused by an at-home accident. As the show begins, she boards a bus, beginning a 900-mile journey to seek out a televangelist she believes can restore her.

Her hope takes wing in the ascending melody of “On My Way,” snippets of which recur throughout the hour and 50 minutes of the revised, one-act version of the show introduced in 2013-14 and here given its regional premiere.

In Kari Hayter’s staging, the travel metaphor is delivered in a clever and frankly theatrical way. Passengers set down their suitcases in rows and sit on them, suggesting the bus interior. More suitcases — colorful, vintage ones — are hung on a metal framework that defines the back and side walls of the mostly bare performing area (set design by Fred Kinney). Through the back wall a versatile, four-person band, led by Robyn Manion, is visible. It’s a thrill to see this creative team at work again; these three, with costume designer Elizabeth Cox, also staged the Chance’s towering production of “Parade” last year.

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Throughout the trip, the adult Violet (Monika Peña) thinks back on her younger, uninjured self (Rebeka Hoblik). Peña’s rich mezzo soprano is the voice of hard-won experience, compared with Hoblik’s pure, punchy one. In many of these flashbacks, young Violet appears with her widowed father, whose trumpet-like voice, in Johnny Fletcher’s portrayal, occasionally rises to tender, sustained falsettos that bespeak his earnestness in raising her.

Script writer and lyricist Brian Crawley bases the tale on “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” a 1973 short story by North Carolina writer Doris Betts. Tesori suffuses it with the sounds of Americana, country, gospel, R&B and ’60s pop.

If their Violet seems too smart and independent to fall for a television faith healer, try to let go of that concern and focus instead on the ways in which she changes once she heads out into the world.

People may register shock or turn their heads when they meet Violet (which is one way we know she is disfigured, because it is not suggested with makeup). But many of them turn back and begin to get to know the real her.

Violet opens her heart and miracles happen. The Chance’s buoyant production is one too. Actors Co-op in Hollywood has its own production scheduled for May, so perhaps the marvels will keep multiplying.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Violet’

Where: Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends March 4

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Tickets: $36-$45

Info: (888) 455-4212, www.ChanceTheater.com

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

daryl.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @darylhmiller

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