BWW Reviews: VIOLET is an Underappreciated Musical Gem
Director Leigh Silverman's superlative production of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley's (book and lyrics) underappreciated musical gem, Violet, began as a one-night concert this past July as part of the new City Center Encores! Off-Center series. It wasn't long after that talk of a Broadway transfer began; partially because of a new generation of audiences discovering this elegantly-written and emotionally sophisticated material, and partially for the opportunity to let more people see Sutton Foster's captivating performance in a role that truly utilizes her skills as a musical actor.
Roundabout's relatively intimate American Airlines Theatre provides a perfect Broadway setting for a more fully staged transfer, embellished by set designer David Zinn to give the impression we're watching the show performed in a rustic barn that's in serious need of a paint job. Most of the supporting roles have been recast, but fortunately Joshua Henry and Emerson Steele return to repeat their moving performances.
Premiering at Playwrights Horizons for a limited 1997 run, Violet is based on Doris Betts' short story, The Ugliest Pilgrim. Set in 1964, the title character is a 25 year old woman from rural North Carolina whose face was disfigured by an axe blade in a horrific accident when she was thirteen. Audience members must use their imaginations to picture the scar that didn't heal properly, though characters react startled when they first see her.
She grows up with a cynical suspicion of any boy who pays attention to her and a sympathetic view of the black people demanding their civil rights, as she claims to share their experience of being judged by their appearance.
When the musical begins, Violet has finally saved up enough money to take a bus trip to Tulsa to see her favorite televangelist, convinced that his connection to God will make her scar go away. On the way there's an unexpected encounter with a pair of soldier buddies. Things get heated up with Monty, a handsome playboy who's accustomed to women swooning for him, but she also shares a bond with Flick, who is understandably more cautious than his pal, being a black man traveling in the south.
While there are no miracles of biblical proportions, Violet ends with emotional cleansing, self-realization and hopefulness.
Tesori's captivating mix of bluegrass, gospel, country and period rock receives a rich orchestral treatment by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red, played by an on-stage nine piece orchestra under music director Michael Rafter. Crawley's lyrics are plainspoken, but deeply empathetic and character-probing. His book effectively splices in glimpses of young Violet and her father as memories triggered by the events within older Violet's pilgrimage.
Sutton Foster is that rare above-the-title Broadway star who can match polished musical theatre craft with an approachable everywoman quality. As Violet, she mixes her character's devout trust in the Lord with a protective shell of distrust built from twelve years of blaming her dad for both her initial injury and how he handled its aftermath and from dealing with the repulsed and cruel treatment she's received from others for half her life. It was the best acting performance of her New York career.
As Flick, Joshua Henry's mountainous voice and passionate performance brings down the house with his one solo. Colin Donnell's Monty is a good looking charmer with a caring side, who lacks the maturity to understand a woman like Violet. One of the musical's best scenes has Monty trying to utilize his usual seduction on Violet, who craves masculine sexual attention without all the game-playing.
Young Emerson Steele made her New York debut in the City Center concert and repeats her excellent performance as teenaged Violet, whose developing mind must deal with her lot in life and struggles to come to an understanding with her father, played with hearty earnestness by Alexander Gemignani.
Violet is a small musical of big ideas. Its spectacle comes in its writing and in the opportunity for singing actors to play intriguing characters. This production is not to be missed.