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On Theater: ‘Violet’ wilts on Costa Mesa stage

“Violet” at the Costa Mesa Playhouse
Rob Bergman, Allie Zito, Melissa Musial, Eileen Goodwin, Melinda Messenger-Stout, Wade Wooldridge in the Costa Mesa Playhouse production of “Violet,” which runs through Nov. 17.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Playhouse)

With some strong performances and resonant vocal quality, the musical “Violet,” now in residence at the Costa Mesa Playhouse, should be far more enjoyable than it actually is.

The reason for the show’s strange inaccessibility lies with its creators, Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (lyrics), who have taken Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” on a circuitous journey to enlightenment.

This journey, via a Greyhound bus in 1964, is characterized by a number of stops and starts, a bumpy road that director Jason Holland’s Costa Mesa production is obliged to retrace.

Its title character is a young, untutored North Carolina woman whose face has been disfigured in a girlhood “hatchet encounter,” though the scars of that incident must be imagined since no gruesome makeup has been designed, a move that the program takes pains to explain.

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Melissa Musial delivers a fine, heart-rending performance as Violet, who is traveling to Oklahoma to ask a charismatic faith healer to alter her appearance. Her transition from country bumpkin to fully-developed woman is credibly accomplished.

“Violet” at Costa Mesa Playhouse
Melissa Musial, Justin Crawford and Hunter Berecochea star in “Violet,” playing at the Costa Mesa Playhouse through Nov. 17.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Playhouse)

Along the way she encounters a couple of soldiers: Monty (Hunter Berecochea), a white corporal in the 101st Airborne Division, and Flick (Justin Crawford), a black sergeant apparently assigned to no unit since he wears no shoulder insignia.

Their importance to her, and to the story, expands as the show progresses.

Both actors display powerful singing voices with Crawford’s “Let It Sing” solo at the top of the heap. Berecochea counters with a tender message to Violet with “You’re Different” and “Lay Down Your Head.”

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When Violet finally reaches Tulsa, she finds the slick televangelist (the excellent Wade Woolridge) who scorns her, because she poses no profit opportunity.

Interspersed between Violet’s escapades are flashbacks detailing her trying relationship with her father. Johnny Fletcher is splendid in the latter role while Elizabeth “Ellie” Smallwood is captivating as a forceful reminiscence of Vi’s girlhood self.

“Violet” at Costa Mesa Playhouse
Johnny Fletcher and Elizabeth “Ellie” Smallwood, playing a young version of the play’s namesake, in the Costa Mesa Playhouse production of “Violet.”
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Playhouse)

The musical score, under the direction of Cynthia McGarity, pervades the action and strives to lend credence to the characters. Michael Serna’s unit setting provides an effective backdrop.

“Violet” makes a strong case for tolerance and understanding but its structure proves ultimately unsatisfying. They’re trying, and nearly succeeding, to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

IF YOU GO

What: “Violet”

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 17

Cost: $23 - $25

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Information: (949) 650-5269; costamesaplayhouse.com

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