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NEW YORK – Broad strokes and big effects often appear to be the default setting for Broadway musicals, so it’s always refreshing to see a modestly scaled show in which the cast and creative team trust in the value of emotional intimacy. Driven by a performance of incandescent yearning from Sutton Foster that’s all the more moving for its restraint, Violet is a delicate wildflower, craning toward the sun. Director Leigh Silverman‘s spirited yet sensitive production of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley‘s country, bluegrass and gospel-flavored 1997 musical makes this poignant story of a facially disfigured farm girl’s journey to self-acceptance genuinely uplifting.
The revival was hatched out of a one-night-only concert event last summer that drew love-letter reviews for Foster, a triple-threat Broadway baby seen here in a subdued mode. While the production retains a stripped-down feel, Roundabout Theatre Company has given it dimensions that are a perfect fit for the material, set in September 1964 in the American South. (Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, who worked with Foster on ABC Family’s much-loved but short-lived Bunheads, are among the associate producers.)
David Zinn‘s single set is an all-purpose wooden A-frame structure painted a dusty blue, which serves as bus station, diner, gas station, hotel, Beale Street bar and church hall. The terrific nine-piece band, led by music director Michael Rafter is perched onstage, dominated by guitars, bass and fiddle as befits the twangy score. While composer Tesori has become known for somewhat grander projects like Caroline, or Change and Shrek the Musical, Violet is closer in feel, if not musical vernacular, to her character-driven work on Fun Home, a hit last year in its Off Broadway premiere.
A handful of chairs and the audience’s imagination are all that’s required to picture the Greyhound buses that take Violet (Foster) from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina through Nashville, then Memphis and on to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Likewise, it’s left to the audience to conjure the deep scar down one side of her face from an accident involving a flying axe blade while her father (Alexander Gemignani) was chopping wood when she was 13. Raised single-handedly by him after the early death of her mother, Violet is now 25 and orphaned, heading to Tulsa to see the miracle-working televangelist (Ben Davis) whom she believes will heal her scar and make her beautiful. But of course, as Dorothy discovered in The Wizard of Oz, there are limits to the magician’s tricks.
While her fantasy makeover quest takes place 50 years ago, Violet’s fixation with physical perfection takes its cue from Hollywood, just as the national obsession does today. In “All to Pieces,” Violet sings about her dream face — she wants Gene Tierney‘s eyes, Ingrid Bergman‘s cheekbones, Judy Garland‘s chin, Grace Kelly‘s nose, Rita Hayworth‘s skin. And Foster, a brilliant stage performer who can do leggy and glamorous or Plain Jane and gangly with equal conviction, embodies the latter with a fierce rejection of vanity. Inured to years of being stared at with morbid fascination or watching people avert their eyes in embarrassment, Violet can be defiant, ornery and defensive, or shrink away as if willing herself to disappear.
The show is based on The Ugliest Pilgrim, a short story by North Carolina writer Doris Betts, and it has the air of a fairytale rooted in stark reality. Crawley’s book has been revised since the premiere production, condensed from two acts to one, and while Tesori’s tuneful score is outstanding, the dramatic scenes are equally good. One of the musical’s achievements is the seamlessness with which the writers and director Silverman weave together past, present and fantasy, keeping them clearly delineated even when they collide in Violet’s head.
This happens often as events on the journey take her back to her childhood. Talented newcomer Emerson Steele plays Violet as a 13-year-old with pluck, strength of character and not an ounce of cloying cuteness. Her scenes with her father convey the solidarity between them but also the unaddressed issues that fester away for years, bubbling up in the older Violet’s consciousness. The unseen scar becomes as vivid as any slasher-movie wound in Steele’s and Foster’s performances, and in the reactions of the people Violet encounters. But a memory scene in which we witness the panic that follows the actual accident is absolutely harrowing.
The dramatic core of the musical, however, is Violet’s time on the road, during which she becomes friendly with two young soldiers, the womanizing Monty (Colin Donnell) and his African-American buddy Flick (Joshua Henry). This being the civil rights-era South, when integration is in its resistant infancy, Flick is as accustomed as Violet to being regarded as an outsider, while beneath his easygoing exterior, handsome, cocksure Monty is lonely. Both men are drawn to her, but ultimately only one of them understands her and teaches her to trust her heart.
While the story could be treacly sentiment in less skilled hands, Violet brings a quiet spiritual undertow to its characters’ search for fortifying connections. It’s emotionally satisfying without being manipulative. Even the heroine’s inevitably deflating encounter with the televangelist is handled with a delicate touch, becoming less about religious hucksterism than faith of a more human nature.
Silverman has put together a beautiful ensemble, in which Foster provides a riveting center without the need to seize star moments. Steele, Gemignani and Donnell (who appeared with Foster in Anything Goes) all register with warmth and nuance, while Henry (The Scottsboro Boys) shines as a man struggling for the courage to express his feelings. The wonderful Annie Golden also deserves a special mention, as a sweet old busybody who takes a maternal interest in Violet, and a hilariously frowzy Memphis tart, staggering around in her heels looking for male company as she sings “Anyone Would Do.”
There are numerous musical highlights, among them the jaunty “On My Way,” which kicks off the bus trip; Foster’s melancholy lullaby, “Lay Down Your Head”; the romantic “Who’ll Be the One (If Not Me),” performed by a trio of crooning cowboys; and the joyous gospel hymn “Raise Me Up,” in which soloist Rema Webb all but blows off the roof. But the thrilling showstopper is Henry’s “Let It Sing,” which starts as an Army drill and builds into a soaring anthem of self-belief.
Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (runs through Aug. 10)
Cast: Sutton Foster, Colin Donnell, Alexander Gemignani, Joshua Henry, Ben Davis, Annie Golden, Emerson Steele, Austin Lesch, Anastacia McCleskey, Charlie Pollock, Rema Webb
Director: Leigh Silverman
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Book and lyrics: Brian Crawley, based on the short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” by Doris Betts
Set designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Orchestrations: Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, Buryl Red
Music director: Michael Rafter
Choreographer: Jeffrey Page
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, in association with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, David Mirvish, Barry and Fran Weissler, Elizabeth Armstrong, Mary Jo and Ted Shen
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