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Posted on Fri. Aug. 08, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

'Violet' takes center stage

Arena Dinner Theatre focuses on musical's values

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Arena Dinner Theatre's production of “Violet” doesn't look like your average musical, and that's the point.

Director Jake Wilhelm says the minimalist stage won't feature much but a rock band in the background with furniture and smaller pieces symbolizing different scenes.

“Everything else is pretty much blank,” he says. “I really think the music, the acting, the dialogue is important for this one.”

Opening the theater's season today, “Violet” is about a physically scarred young woman on a quest across the Deep South in 1964 to seek a TV evangelist to become beautiful.

“Traditionally, this is the hardest spot to get in audiences,” Wilhelm says. “Everyone is getting back to school, getting their life in order from the summer.

“This is just something quite different than what (the theater) normally does,” he says. “It's kind of a country rock musical, and it's a good one to pull in audiences.”

Violet, whose face was scarred in a childhood accident, has saved up enough money for a bus trip and is determined to be miraculously healed; however, as the journey goes on, she meets a young black soldier who helps her look past her visage, and Violet begins to heal the emotional scars.

The play first premiered off-Broadway in 1997 featuring a libretto by Brian Crawley and music by “Thoroughly Modern Millie” composer Jeanine Tesori. Last year, the show had a resurgence on the theater scene when it premiered on Broadway.

Wilhelm, a local musician and actor, says he's prepared to go behind the scenes. He says his familiarity with the musical made him confident about working with “Violet.”

“I actually was in the show as a freshman at Ball State (University) back in 2001 – I knew the show, and it had stuck with me for all these years. I think it's going to bring audiences in, either by word of mouth or just excitement because it's running on Broadway now,” he says.

“Really, it's about feeling like an outsider and learning to love yourself and learning what to put faith in. I think that is just a timeless story right there.”

Wilhelm says he's been lucky with a supportive cast for his directorial debut. The multi-genre soundtrack demands the cast to sing a score of rock, country and gospel numbers. He has recruited local musicians for the band, and vocalist Fatima Washington will be acting in two cameos for her first play.

“I got blessed with just the right amount of people to get this done,” he says. “We have blues, Southern rock, gospel – it's all over the board. It's so much fun, and the cast has been enjoying it from day one. 

“The challenge is going from a ballad to a gospel number and getting everybody to really feel it. They all have their own different musical backgrounds, and they're all learning something new for this show, which I think is cool.”

Playing the role of Violet is Darby Bixler. Moving to New York in the fall to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Bixler says “Violet” wasn't originally in her plans for this summer. 

“It's an expensive school, and I'm working at Dairy Queen 40 hours a week, so I wasn't going to do a show this summer because of that – but it's such a great opportunity, and I couldn't turn it down,” Bixler says.

“Violet is a strong character, and I want to show that women have power even when people look down on them.

“It's all about what's going on inside. I know that's a message in a lot of shows, but I think this is much more prevalent,” she adds.

Wilhelm says that he hopes audiences also pick up that “Violet” is more than skin-deep.

“I want people who don't usually get out to see musicals and plays to come out and enjoy themselves, and really enjoy this different type of theater,” he says. “I want people to be moved by the story and feel better about themselves and look at people differently as well.”

kcarr@jg.net 


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