BAM blossoms

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday February 19, 2019
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Juliana Lustenader and Miranda Long play the title character in Bay Area Musicals' "Violet" at the Alcazar Theater. Photo: Courtesy BAM
Juliana Lustenader and Miranda Long play the title character in Bay Area Musicals' "Violet" at the Alcazar Theater. Photo: Courtesy BAM

"Violet" is in bloom, and it's a sight to behold. Also, a joy to listen to. The four-year-old nonprofit Bay Area Musicals (BAM) organization has come fully into its own with this sparkling production of composer Jeanine Tesori ("Fun Home") and lyricist/book-writer Brian Crawley's adaptation of a short story by Doris Betts.

A fresh and compact bouquet of pleasures, the show, set in 1964, follows its titular backwoods gal on a Greyhound ride from her home in rural North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Violet hopes to have her facial scar, the result of a childhood tragedy, erased by her favorite television faith healer. Along the way, characters who initially recoil from Violet's appearance abandon their scorn, coming to appreciate her inner warmth.

The scar is reacted to and spoken of, but not visually represented on stage; its existence, for Violet, proves as psychological as it is physical. It will hardly surprise you that Violet undergoes a similar reassessment of her own worth. What should surprise you is that such potentially lachrymose material delivers far more pop than corn.

A crackerjack six-piece combo under the music direction of Jon Gallo keeps things moving at a nonstop, no-time-for-sobbing pace, and Tesori's amalgam of blues, folk and country vernacular stays light on stand-still balladry, setting toes tapping while Crawley's tight scenes whiz by at a bus-window clip. The direction, by Dyan McBride, is cinematically fluid. When the stage erupts into gospel, you may find it challenging to remain in your seat.

As written by Crawley and played by a revelatory Juliana Lustenader — imagine young Laura Linney, with luscious pipes — Violet dodges sticky-sweetness with more than a pinch of salt in her character. Always leaning toward snappy over sappy, she's a bit of a card sharp, happy to down a shot of booze, openly flirtatious and not-much-less-openly horny. She's even inadvertently racist on occasion. It's as refreshing as a nickel Coke that none of this makes the other characters think Violet's not a good woman. She's just a heck of a lot more interesting than your typical Broadway princess.

An ideally cast 12-year-old Miranda Long plays Violet in her youth, often harmonizing with Lustenader as childhood memories intermingle with the present. Jack O'Reilly and Jon-David Randle are both swoonworthy as military men who befriend Violet on her trip, then fall into an unpredictable love triangle. And in his big solo "Raise Me Up," Clay David's high-bouncing, low-down preacher man almost steals the show, even amidst a kick-ass ensemble of 15 in which every performer offers moments of splendid near-thievery.

Costume and wig designers Brooke Jennings and Jacqueline Dennis make the cast feel even larger, with their ongoing parade of stunning period looks. Jennings' collaboration with lighting designer Eric Johnson yields postcard-pretty color coordinated vignettes. The flexible single set by company artistic director Matthew McCoy is full of gliding, sliding secrets.

In this month when San Francisco's commercial producers are welcoming pricey blockbusters "Hello Dolly" and "Hamilton" to town, "Violet," with its top ticket at $65, offers showgoers the greatest value in town, hands down.

Violet, through March 17. Bay Area Musicals at the Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary St., SF. Tickets from $35: (415) 340-2207,