A Note on Previews, Plus Violet Take Two!

Violet

Matt has a rule that he doesn’t see a show in previews until at least the third week. I, as of late, have been trying to adopt this habit. This is not to say previews aren’t worth seeing or that they’re “bad” performances by any means, but more often than not, the show is simply not ready. It likely still needs more time to polish technical cues, and as they say in the theatre business, the show isn’t “frozen” yet.

For those of you who don’t know how previews work, basically, during those three or four weeks before opening night, the show is still malleable. Cuts are made, lines added, blocking shifted, light cues changed. Many of these shifts are based on how things are going in front of the audiences – the creative team and performers get an idea of which moments aren’t working, what isn’t reading, what can be taken further, etc. So everyone is also rehearsing during the day before the performances each night and constantly adapting to all of these changes. It’s an exhausting and frenzied time. There is so much else going on during a preview period aside from the story being told.

Back in April, Matt and I broke his rule when we got comp tickets to Violet, because come on, we weren’t going to pass up free seats! We saw the seventh preview I believe, and while I liked it (and gave it a fairly good review), it still lacked…something. It felt unfinished, the actors weren’t as connected as they could be, they hadn’t quite found their rhythm – all symptoms of early previews of a musical and of course, things I would never hold against a production.

Something I don’t often get to do is then go back and see a show later on in its run. To be able to return and see the developments and changes is always a rush. In this case, I couldn’t have asked for better circumstances. Four months of eight shows a week (and four Tony nominations) later, I took Brigitte to see the closing performance of Violet last Sunday for her birthday, and I am so happy to have witnessed it. So happy that I’m writing a second mini-review!

I loved this production. Truly. Back in April, I said in my review that I didn’t think the stripped down, minimalist approach fully served the show. Now I couldn’t disagree with myself more. It was incredibly effective and put the emphasis on the characters and the heart of the story. The connections between people were real and specific. I noticed so much more detail this time around – like the way Flick was treated in the opening scenes even when he was not the focus. There were sharp, striking flashes of choreography in “On My Way” and “Luck of the Draw,” moments which may have been there back in previews, but they didn’t read the way they did last week. Props to director Leigh Silverman and everyone else for such tight, precise storytelling.

I also had said there was no depth to the character of Monty and that I didn’t buy the love triangle. Again, now this couldn’t be further from the truth. Colin Donnell brought so much to the role, and you could actually see Monty changing, or at least wanting to change and be better. And I definitely believed this odd triangle of people and the twists and turns of their relationships, thanks to the nuance that developed over the course of the run.

The show was extra emotional since it was the last performance, and everyone was giving it their all. There were extra riffs, milked moments of laughter, and super long applause breaks between numbers. It was quite the ride, and I’m so thrilled I was able to go back on the Violet bus for a second time.

Violet
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley, Directed by Leigh Silverman
American Airlines Theatre, Closed August 10th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Sutton Foster and Alexander Gemignani


Violet

Violet

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.

Violet
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