by Cory Conley · April 28, 2014
I'm not convinced that Violet, the musical written by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, belongs on a Broadway stage. This elegant tale of a young lady on a road trip to get rid of a scar on her face opened at Playwrights Horizons in 1997, after which it entered the regional repertoire and hasn't been seen again in Manhattan until now. And though it never quite fills up the cavernous American Airlines Theater, where it's currently playing in a production directed by Leigh Silverman, it has some lovely songs, an occasional emotional tug, and a fantastic performance by Sutton Foster.
Does my praise sound faint? I don't mean it to. There really are some excellent moments here, and Foster is a revelation. More on that in a moment.
The show's namesake is a 1964 Southern girl from the country woods whose face was accidentally disfigured by an ax in childhood. Now grown up, she's bought a ticket for a weekend trip to Tulsa, where she hopes a faith-healing televangelist will cure her. Along the way, she strikes up some friendly relations with a pair of soldiers on the bus, who are soon to be engulfed in the Vietnam War. A triangle soon forms (though not a neat one) and Violet is torn between the two, an African-American named Flick and his hunky white pal Monty.
In a neat bit of theatricality, we the audience never see Violet's scars, so we're forced to use our imagination when it comes to the shuddering reactions of the people who meet her. There are also flashbacks to Violet as a young girl, filling in the plot and illuminating her relationship with her father (played expertly by Alexander Gemignani.) As her two-day trip progresses, both we and Violet begin to unpack the connection between her predicament and her era, and the various ways of being an outsider.
Violet's road trip of self-discovery is set to Tesori's dynamic and flavorful score, which samples country, bluegrass, gospel, and other sounds of the South. The songs impressively range from Violet's soft, stunning ballad "Lay Down Your Head" to the genuine showstopper "Let it Sing," wonderfully belted by Joshua Henry as Flick. The onstage band, led by musical director Michael Rafter, looks and sounds great on David Zinn's set.
The elements that make up VIOLET, though, are so familiar from other stories that ultimately, the evening adds up to something less than the sum of its parts. And there's a softness to the show that kept me from fully engaging with its themes, a problem that I suspect is amplified by the big machinery of Broadway. Nothing in the plot is likely to surprise you, and Crawley's lyrics can drift into blandness. As Violet ambled down the road toward the all-powerful faith healer (you can guess how that turns out), I kept thinking about "The Wizard of Oz," and the comparison wasn't always welcome.
But then there's Sutton Foster. Even if you were not a fan of her hard-sell perkiness as the star of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Anything Goes," you will find it hard to resist her charms here. They're much subtler this time. Gone is any trace of show-biz glamor or broad comedic styling. Her Violet is a weary and wary young woman who has lived much of her life knowing that what's on the outside of her will forever be a barrier to real connection. This begins to change, and when it does, you can almost map it in Foster's eyes. It's not a perfectly told story, but it's a human one, and in the company of Foster, you'll almost believe every word of it.