Violet

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide and the cast of Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Hayes Theatre Co, December 2

Violet is a lovely little musical with a gentle charm that gets under the skin. Before you know it, you’ve been knocked for six.

Written by composer Jeanine Tesori (who won Best Musical and Best Original Score for Fun Home at this year’s Tony Awards) and writer Brian Crawley, it is based on a short story by Doris Bett called The Ugliest Pilgrim.

The show premiered off-Broadway in 1997 and had a short season on Broadway last year with Sutton Foster as Violet. But it couldn’t have been given a more loving production than it gets here, produced by Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes, and directed by Mitchell Butel.

Set in 1964, Violet tells the story of a young woman (Samantha Dodemaide) who takes a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma, hoping that a televangelist can heal a disfiguring scar on her face, gained 12 years earlier when the blade flew from her father’s axe.

En route, she meets two soldiers – the cocky Monty (Steve Danielsen) and the kindly Flick (Barry Conrad) who as an African American understands what it’s like to be a misfit. The two buddies take her under their wing and fall for her.

Tesori’s music includes gospel, country, blues, soul, folk as well as ballads and soaring anthems in a more traditional musical theatre style. It’s a gorgeous score, with the songs emerging organically from the story and the characters.

Butel makes a very impressive directorial debut. For starters, his casting is excellent and he draws clearly delineated, truthful performances from the actors. He keeps the action moving fluidly at a perfect pace, and he knows exactly how to put the focus where it needs to be.

Simon Greer’s non-naturalistic set is a clever, evocative space, which Butel uses extremely well, with great support from the rest of the creative team (lighting by Ross Graham, costumes by Lucetta Stapleton and choreography by Amy Campbell).

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

With her expressive face and voice, Dodemaide gives a radiant performance as Violet, capturing her prickly exterior and inner vulnerability. She manages to make the character’s deluded naivety believable and has a lovely, shy smile that lights up the stage.

Luisa Scrofani and Damien Bermingham are moving in flashback scenes between the young Violet and her father. Danielsen and Conrad give warm, appealing, believable performances as Monty and Flick, Dash Kruck nails the charlatan preacher, while Genevieve Lemon is a scene-stealer as an old Lady on the bus and a Memphis lady of the night.

The rest of the ensemble – Katie Elle Reeve, Linden Furnell, Ryan Gonzalez and Elenoa Rokobaro – all play their part beautifully and between them unleash some powerhouse vocals, while Musical Director Lucy Bermingham leads a tight six-piece band.

The lyrics in the opening number are a little hard to hear with everyone singing so loudly, but after that the sound (sound design by Jeremy Silver) is as good as I’ve heard it at the Hayes.

Violet is a simple, optimistic piece about self-acceptance and forgiveness. The ending won’t surprise but it touches the heart without being sentimental or corny.

Violet is at the Hayes until December 20. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 29

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Wicked

Capitol Theatre, September 25

Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack.  Photo by Jeff Busby

Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack. Photo by Jeff Busby

Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s phenomenally popular musical Wicked is back in Sydney on its 10th anniversary tour – and though the show took time to hit its mark on opening night, the audience still found it “thrillifying”, as audiences have been doing the world over since the show premiered on Broadway in 2003, grossing around $3 billion to date.

For the uninitiated, Wicked is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, telling the story of how two unlikely friends – the green-skinned misfit Elphaba and the perky, popular Galinda – become the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch Glinda.

Act I doesn’t feel as sharp as in the past, skimming along like the song “Dancing Through Life”, almost as if on autopilot at times, without fully landing all the moments. In Act II, however, it settles and finds its heart.

Jemma Rix’s lovely, warm Elphaba is the heart and soul of the show. She gives a dramatically layered performance and sings with a gorgeous tone, bringing a spine-tingling, crystal clear belt to the show-stopping, anthemic “Defying Gravity”.

Lucy Durack returns to the role of Glinda, having starred in the original 2008 Australian production. She appeared to be struggling with some vocal issues on opening night and her voice sounded somewhat scratchy. She also pushed the comedy a bit too hard with inverse results. However, her scenes with Rix in the second act were as touching as ever.

Reg Livermore is wonderful as the not-so-wonderful Wizard of Oz, bringing nuance, humanity and a winning showmanship to the role, Steve Danielsen is an understated presence as Fiyero, without a great deal of chemistry with Rix, but he sings beautifully, Maggie Kirkpatrick reprises the conniving Madame Morrible with aplomb, and Emily Cascarino and Edward Grey do a good job as Nessarose and Boq.

Wicked tackles serious themes about oppression, tolerance, propaganda and fear mongering, which strike a real chord right now. But it’s the “swankified” spectacle of the lavish set and costumes, the catchy, soaring melodies, and the uplifting “girl power” sisterhood between Elphaba and Glinda that have won it such a huge following. The production may have lost a little of its sparkle but the Sydney opening night audience was clearly delighted in the main, leaping to their feet at the end and roaring their approval.

Wicked is at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until January 30. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28