VioletPosted: April 22, 2014
I have to say that amongst a season full of typical Broadway spectacle, it is refreshing to have a simple, understated musical as one of the options. Violet is an ultimate bare bones production: minimal staging on a minimal set. Don’t go expecting big dance numbers (the closest thing to that is the gospel number near the end). And don’t go to see money all over the stage in the form of flying carpets or a moving boxing ring. This musical is, at its core, a character study.
Based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, Violet is the tale of a disfigured woman (Violet, played by Sutton Foster) and her path to self-love. Growing up in North Carolina, Violet was raised by her widowed father and fell victim to a freak accident when her father’s axe blade came loose and struck her across the face. Thirteen years later, she embarks on a long bus journey to Tulsa, Oklahoma with the hope of being spiritually healed. On the way, she meets and grows close to two soldiers, Monty and Flick, forming an unexpected love triangle.
Even though Violet is being categorized as a revival for Tony season, this is actually the first time it has been on Broadway. There was an Off-Broadway run in 1997 for which it won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. After a successful concert performance at City Center Encores! this past summer, it has officially made the leap to Broadway thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company (check out some highlights here).
I decided to study the score in advance of seeing the show, listening to the cast recording countless times. There are some incredibly beautiful songs with lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek the Musical, Caroline, or Change). Since I became quite familiar with the music, I went to the theatre particularly curious about the book. Unfortunately it was not as fleshed out as I’d hoped (although this may be due to the fact that the musical has been cut down to one act). The love story is somewhat lacking; I never really got on board with the triangle. I think a large problem is that aside from Violet, we don’t get much development from the other characters. Flick sings in the end, “I’m not at all the man you first laid eyes on,” but I didn’t see a change. This is by no means a comment on Joshua Henry’s performance, which is smooth as silk. I think it’s more the script that leaves me wanting. Monty, the other male lead (played by the talented Colin Donnell), remains rather bland and two-dimensional throughout as well.
Here’s the real scoop though: Sutton Foster’s a star. Did you hear? There’s this actress who was the understudy and got bumped up to the lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, and no one has looked back since. She deserves every Tony Award she will ever receive (two so far), every bit of praise and bit of attention she’s ever gotten. But truly, this isn’t news. Sutton shines in everything she touches, even as a character trying to hide herself from the world. From her hunched physicality, drawn-in shoulders, shielded eyes, wry humor, and using her hair as a barrier, you know who Violet is in an instant. Like in the Off-Broadway production, no make-up is used to create the scar. It is left entirely up to the imagination, and Sutton does all the work you need. This is the posture and behavior of a disfigured girl, ashamed to show her face because of how the world has treated her, and watching her transform over the course of the show is magnificent.
I hope to go back and see it again. I only saw the seventh preview or so, and I’m told it’s undergone several changes. Based on the glowing reviews the show received on Sunday night, I’m guessing things have only headed in the right direction. So even though the book felt thin to me and at times the stripped staging didn’t do much to help, I remain a huge fan of the score and this beautiful story of a girl finding herself. Oh, and of course – Sutton, Sutton, Sutton.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley, Directed by Leigh Silverman
American Airlines Theatre, Closing August 10th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell, and Sutton Foster