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VIOLET, Apple Tree Theatre. Strong and true, this prizewinning, emotionally textured 1997 musical by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Brian Crawley mines every feeling behind its sturdy songs. A midwest premiere, Eileen Boevers's staging electrifies. Based on Doris Betts's story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," Violet recalls Sondheim's Passion as it paints a down-home portrait of a disfigured--and sometimes transfigured--girl whose face was accidentally split by her ax-wielding father. Eight years later, in 1964, the ardently faithful 25-year-old Violet takes a Greyhound bus from Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to seek a cure from a television evangelist.

The journey surpasses the destination. Violet meets two soldiers-- Monty, a feckless lug destined for Vietnam who effortlessly seduces her, and Flick, an African-American sergeant who understands what Violet has endured. All the faith healing Violet could ever want will come from one of them.

Seldom have songs served a story so well. Tesori's music offers a rich, unforced mix of blues, soul, country, and gospel. The awesomely talented Nathan Stampley Jr. ignites Flick's consolatory "Let It Sing," while K.C. Lupp's Monty conveys all the ambiguity in his love ballad "You're Different." And "Raise Me Up," as it's belted out by a disbelieving preacher (Jonathan Weir) and his choir, does so indeed. Lisa Datz (fresh from her Broadway debut in Titanic) turns her riveting Violet into a life force, the kind of heart-shaking performance that is its own miracle. --Lawrence Bommer

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