Exploring Life’s Lessons In “Violet” 

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the New England premiere of the musical “Violet” from Jan. 9 to Feb. 6 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. 

With a powerful score by Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home” “Caroline, Or Change”) and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley (based on the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts), “Violet” is set in 1964 during the civil rights movement.  

Drawing on a variety of musical styles from bluegrass and blues to gospel and rock, the story focuses on a young woman who has been disfigured in an accident.  She embarks on a cross-country bus trip from the Blue Ridge mountains to Oklahoma to visit a televangelist in hopes of receiving a miraculous healing.   Along the way, she forms unlikely friendships with her fellow passengers, learning it’s through the journey that you discover who you are.

Alison McCartan plays the title role in the SpeakEasy production. In an interesting coincidence, this marks the third time Alison has taken on a role originated in New York by Tony Award-winning actress Sutton Foster.  The other two include “Drowsy Chaperone” (also at SpeakEasy)  and the national tour of “Shrek The Musical.”

Alison was born in Minnesota.  As a child, she studied dance, which provided a natural transition to the world of musical theater.  Her professional debut came in a Minneapolis Children’s Theatre production of “Mr. Poppers Penguins.” 

It was while studying at Boston Conservatory that she first crossed paths with SpeakEasy’s Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, who teaches at the school.  In addition to their class work, he initially cast her in “Chaperone” and later in “Bad Jews,” for which she received a 2014 IRNE Award nomination as Best Actress.  

After graduating from The Conservatory, she got a substantial break with the “Shrek” tour, eventually settling in New York City.  Her subsequent credits include regional productions of “Steel Magnolias,” “Next To Normal” and “Rocky Horror Show,” among others.

We spoke by phone just prior to rehearsals beginning in Boston.

Q. Did you happen to see Sutton Foster play the role of “Violet” in New York?
A. It’s funny because I used to sell merchandise for Broadway and off-Broadway shows.  And for a short time I was selling merchandise at “Violet.” The theater there is a little strict, so they didn’t really let the merchandise people come in and see the show . . . Now, in retrospect, I’m glad I (didn’t see it).  I mean, I love Sutton Foster and I know if I had seen her performance it probably would be informing my own, and I’d like it to be my own interpretation and not a copy of someone else’s.

Q. That’s quite a feat, going from selling merchandise for a show to later starring in a production of the same show.
A. That happened with “Bad Jews” as well.  The only reason I even knew that “Bad Jews” was a show was that I was selling merchandise for it.  Isn’t that crazy? 

Q. So what first drew the girl from Minnesota halfway across the country to Boston Conservatory?
A. I always knew I wanted to go to school for musical theater . . . The big draw for me at Boston Conservatory was that it gave me a little taste of the East Coast.  It was close enough to New York that I could get there occasionally for auditions . . . It was a nice transitional city for me, growing up in the suburbs of Minnesota . . . I always knew it was one of the best schools to go to. I had a couple of friends who went there, so I knew from personal accounts that it would be up my alley.

Q. Were you always interested in performing?
A. I loved being onstage. I was always singing around the house. I have all sorts of family members who say  “I remember when you were dancing around the house singing Disney songs.”   I guess it just became clear it was what I wanted.

Q. This marks your third show at SpeakEasy.  Boston’s like another home for you.
A. I’m very excited to actually work with Paul on this experience.  Paul was supposed to direct “Drowsy Chaperone” but then (couldn’t) so David Connolly stepped in, who’s actually choreographing “Violet” . . . Then with “Bad Jews,” that was directed by Rebecca Bradshaw. 
So even though I’ve taken classes with Paul and have worked closely with him and he has cast me in things, I’ve never actually worked under him as a director.  So I’m looking forward to this project.

Q. What makes the role of Violet so special to you?
A. As an actor, it’s a huge thing to read a script and see that (your character) is really a different person from page one to the end . . . To know that you’re going on a journey throughout the show every night is so exciting . . . She’s so strong and so fascinating and knows what she wants and is going through anything to get it.  She’s got a couple of great men who come into her life, but she’s not necessarily defined by them.  It’s really about her personal journey and her coming to terms with her demons and her beauty and her struggles.  That happens to be shaped by men, but isn’t defined by men.

Q. On your own journey, I understand there’s a fairly strong connection to Ireland in your family.
A. We originally come from County Down. My grandfather is huge on genealogy.  We get emails from him all the time saying, “Here’s the latest thing I’ve learned about our family history. “My grandfather has made the trip to Ireland with almost all of his sons.  I want to say he’s been there ten times or something.  My Dad recently traveled with him this past spring.  It was really exciting to hear about that trip and see those photos and know that my grandfather and my Dad (stood) on the land where our ancestors came from. 

Q. Will there be a trip for you?
A. While my grandfather has taken most of his sons, I know it’s important, in turn, that my Dad take me and my brother . . . Also, my grandfather has planted a tree in each of his grandchildren’s names in a reforestation area outside of Dublin.  So there’s a tree in my name in Ireland, in an area called Wicklow . . . (it’s) like a little piece of me in my homeland. 

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Violet,” from SpeakEasy Stage Company, Jan. 9 - Feb. 6, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston.  Info: 617-933-8600 or speakeasystage.com.