Two shows, two journey-to-self epics about disenchanted young people coming into their own—but only one works as well as you’d hope. That would be Peter and the Starcatcher, the giddily acrobatic story of how Peter Pan got to be a Lost Boy, currently in residence at the Kennedy Center. Over at Ford’s? The ambitious but on-the-nose musical Violet, which traces the pilgrimage of a damaged, angry country girl from the mountains of North Carolina to the Tulsa temple of the faith healer she believes can remove both the physical scar that mars her face and the psychic hurt they’ve brought her all her life. Both stagings are plenty accomplished, but where Peter is all wit and poise and panache, Violet is a storm of need and emotion, hurling itself across the footlights, desperate to make us care.
I wish I did. I’m an admirer of the composer Jeanine Tesori, whose music for shows like Caroline, or Change and Fun Home is a rangy mix of styles and moods, the product of an agile imagination. And her work in Violet is far from shabby: rich gospel shouts; lively dance-club tunes; textured, scene-long traveling choruses for the passengers on the long-haul Greyhound her heroine takes across the ’60s South.
Ah, you say, I sense a Theme, and yes you do: Violet, mocked for her disfigured face since a childhood ax accident, will encounter a pair of soldiers, one white and one black, and she will both learn hard lessons and find understanding among people who know what it’s like to be scorned for their looks. Well and good, but unsubtle, and with an Act 1 that’s a slow hour and 20 minutes long, that’s a parable that takes its time getting to its message. (Word is the show is being tightened for a soon-to-open New York revival.)
There are actually some considerable pleasures in the Ford’s production, if you’re game for the ride—not least a handsome modular set, from Tobin Obst, that makes a cross-country bus ride look almost tempting, plus Wade Laboissonniere’s convincingly period costumes. Gregory Maheu, as that televangelist, is pitch-perfect shady. Kevin McAllister, playing a gentle giant of an Army sergeant, falls sweetly and convincingly for our abrasive, defensive heroine, and he sings the everloving bejesus out of every phrase Tesori throws his way. (Seriously: That is a voice.) And the show’s ensemble numbers, whether it’s a cocktail crowd rowdying it up in a Memphis club or the choir rehearsing once the action reaches that Tulsa TV studio, are rousing, richly sung experiences. (Hat-tip to Kellee Knighten Hough, who rings the rafters with a gospel solo in that sequence in the Hope and Glory Building.)
Something’s off-putting, though, about the flat hillbilly accents (and affects) Erin Driscoll and Lauren Williams are putting on in the parts of Violet and Young Vi, respectively. And the decision, whether it’s Tesori’s or director Jeff Calhoun’s, to carry those tinny A’s and brassy L’s through into the songs seems to these South Carolina–bred ears both false and ill-advised.
It’s not just those audible fouls, though. Driscoll’s Violet can be entertainingly badass, as when she faces down a racist hick of a mechanic who’s giving McAllister’s Flick a hard time, but usually the character’s sourness feels alienatingly one-note. An essential vulnerability might make the audience more willing to identify with Violet’s anger at the world, and I’m sure Driscoll is working to uncover it—but for now, at least, it’s not registering in Row H.
Peter and the Starcatcher
By Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
At Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater to Feb. 16
Everything registers in Peter and the Starcatcher, a play so dependent on precise ensemble work that you’ll wonder whether those are actors or a troupe of acrobats flinging themselves about the Eisenhower Theater stage. A dozen bodies, a stretch of rope, the occasional box or bowl or trunk or ladder—that’s roughly all it takes for the Starcatcher cast and movement coordinator Steven Hoggett to create everything from ships’ cabins to bilges to island lagoons to crocodiles. It’s all found-object theatrical magic, the simplest of props plus the limitless power of enthusiastic suggestion, and it’s never not in frenetic motion. If this ripsnorter of a whimsical comedy were a body part, it would have to be jazz hands.
Molly (Megan Stern) and her aristocrat father (Nathan Hosner), taking separate ships to a tropical island with a top-secret cargo, run afoul of an unscrupulous captain (on Molly’s ship Neverland) and a band of fearsome pirates (on Lord Aster’s speedier frigate Wasp). On board the former vessel is a trio of orphans, including one (Joey deBettencourt) abandoned so young he doesn’t know his name; at the head of the latter is the maniacal Black Stache (John Sanders), a cheeky mustache-twirler with a gleam in his eye and a quip on the lip. (He’s like some madcap blend of Inigo Montoya and Nathan Lane, chillingly competent right up until it’s time for a pratfall.)
There’s a vaudeville-inflected song or four, plus a wildly twisty plot involving bloodthirsty island natives, various hirsute and inventively attired mermaids (one has a gimmick involving broccoli steamers that would make a Gypsy stripper proud), and a king who’ll stop at nothing to get his hands on that precious cargo, but the details of it barely matter. It’s all there to keep you entertained as that nameless Boy gropes his way toward a place in the world—he’ll call it Neverland, you’ll have guessed by now—and Black Stache stumbles toward the accident that will turn him into the newly christened Peter’s hook-handed forever nemesis.
Entertained you will emphatically be, too: The ensemble cast of this touring production is a slick machine, with a bravura turn from Sanders at the center and a lively two-man band to power the evening along. And it’s all carried off with a spot-on, knowing goofiness that says “Look how hard we’re working to make you laugh, and isn’t that just the most ridiculous thing?”