UCSD theatre grad stars in award-winning REP musical

Play centers around young woman disfigured by a childhood accident, who dreams of becoming beautiful

“Violet,” which opens Aug. 20 at San Diego REPertory Theatre, is based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, a gifted Southern writer who specializes in short stories about plucky outsider females. The original off-Broadway production won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical and a special Obie for composer Jeanine Tesori’s music in 1997. Revived on Broadway last year, with Sutton Foster in the lead, the show was nominated for several Tony Awards and hailed by the New York Times as one of the top 10 plays of 2014.

“Violet” is the story of a young North Carolina woman disfigured by a freak childhood accident, who dreams of becoming beautiful. Believing that a Tulsa televangelist can help her with a miracle, she gets on a bus to Oklahoma, a 900-mile road trip that leads to her discovering what true beauty really is.

“It’s a story about faith, healing, and the desire for transformation,” said director Sam Woodhouse, now entering his 40th season at the REP.

“Violet is a pilgrim in search of salvation from the pain of being an outsider, and the play is almost a fairy tale of self-discovery,” he added. “It’s set in the south in 1964, a time of great changes — the year the Civil Rights Act was passed and Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize. And it’s a musical, with a mix of American roots music, gospel and honky-tonk rock. That search for higher ground plus the historical resonance and the music make the show deeply attractive.”

Another attractive element in the show is Hannah Corrigan, who plays Violet. The recent recipient of an MFA in Theater from UC San Diego, Corrigan swept away all competition during the audition process. “She immediately distinguished herself as a top-shelf singer and actor with the tremendous amount of spunk the character needs,” Woodhouse said. “She sight-read the music, and the quality of her dramatic fire made us all say: ‘There’s our Violet!’ ”

Corrigan said she never planned to audition for the show. “I was just graduating from the MFA program, and was about to leave for New York to showcase scenes for agents and managers there,” she said. “I was busy packing when I got a call from Korrie Paliotto, the music director of ‘Violet,’ who was music director of the last show I did at UCSD. When she asked me to audition, I told her I had no time to prepare, but she said to come anyway. So I went in and did a cold reading, and I guess it worked.”

Corrigan said years of training in improvisational comedy trained her to get up, unprepared, in front of an audience and not be scared. “It makes your timing better, too,” she noted.

Her varied background also includes training in Shakespeare, clowning, freestyle rapping, dialects and playing the ukulele. Performing in last year’s Page-To-Stage production of “Chasing the Song” at La Jolla Playhouse made her a member of Actors’ Equity; “Violet” was her first Equity audition, and her first audition after grad school. “It was great to try out for the title role and hook it,” she said. “It’s such an honor, and I’m really excited about playing Violet, a character who’s terribly scarred, but so brave.”

• A Musical Note: In 2000, with lyricist Dick Scanlan, “Violet” composer Jeanine Tesori wrote songs for the stage adaptation of the 1967 movie “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” It premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse and went on to Broadway, bringing Tesori a Tony nomination for Best Original Score and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music. This year, the often-nominated Tesori finally took home a Tony for the score of “Fun Home.”

If you go: “Violet” plays through Sept. 13 on the Lyceum Stage, San Diego REPertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza. Tickets: $18-$75 at (619) 544-1000.