Review - 'Violet' Blooms Rapturously
City Center Encores! Off-Center cruelly teased New York Wednesday night with its superlative one-night concert performance of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley's (book and lyrics) underappreciated musical gem, Violet; denying enthralled patrons the opportunity to tell their friends that it's the must-see event of the summer and the chance to cancel their weekend trips in order to beg for tickets to see it again. Surely, this performance will stir up talk about the possibility of a fully mounted revival, especially if Sutton Foster is available to repeat her moving and marvelously detailed performance in the title role.
Premiering at Playwrights Horizons for a limited 1997 run, Violet was 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 Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red, played by a 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.
Director Leigh Silverman's perfectly paced production was done with minimal staging as the actors spent much of their time seated before music stands that held their scripts, but the superb ensemble was composed of performers who can dig deep into the text as well as provide vocal thrills.
Sutton Foster is that rare above-the-title Broadway star who can match polished musical theatre skills with an approachable everywoman quality. As Violet, she mixed 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 brought down the house with his one solo and Van Hughes conveyed Monty's caring side beneath the ladies man exterior. Christopher Sieber's flair for showmanship was well-utilized as the preacher who knows his limitations as a healer and soloists Rema Webb, Anastacia McClesky and Keale Settle shined brightly in their musical moments. The Songs of Solomon Gospel Choir charged up the audience while bringing authenticity to the revival scene.
Special attention must be given to young Emerson Steele, making a notable New York debut as teenaged Violet dealing with her lot in life and struggling to come to an understanding with her father, warmly played by Chris Sullivan.
At first glance, City Center seems too large a space for an intimate piece such as Violet, but Silverman successfully filled the room with emotions without robbing the musical of its delicacy. One of the smaller Broadway houses would serve the show well and perhaps Foster's involvement would help soften any aversion to Violet's non-traditional subject matter. It would be a shame to let the evening remain just an extraordinary memory.