Last summer City Center Encores began a new series that featured Off-Broadway musicals the producers thought were worth reviving. On the list for that inaugural season was VIOLET, a 1997 musical originally produced by Playwrights Horizons, with music by Jeanine Tesori ("Fun Home", "Caroline, or Change", "Thoroughly Modern Millie", "Shrek") and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley based on a story by Doris Betts. The CIty Center performance was so successful with the audience and critics that the Roundabout, in association with a group of leading Broadway producers including the Weisslers, decided to give VIOLET its first Broadway production. Visually the show looks like an elaborate version of an Encores production. The band is on a platform at the rear of the stage, part of a unit set (David Zinn, designer) that looks like an old Southern honky tonk night spot. Kitchen chairs become a bus when necessary and a bed rolls out from under the platform for the scenes in a Fort Smith, Arkansas, bed and breakfast.
The musical takes place in 1964. Violet (Sutton Foster) is from a small farming community in North Carolina. Some years before, she got too close to an axe her father was swinging. The wound and poor medical attention have caused her face to be disfigured by a large, ugly scar. She sees a Tulsa faith healer on television and decides to take the bus to Tulsa, believing her wound can be made to disappear. On the way she meets two soldiers, the handsome, womanizer Monty (Colin Donnell) and his Black buddy Flick (Joshua Henry). Through the journey we see Violet's evolving relationships with these men and her encounter with the Tulsa televangelist. Of course, ultimately Violet learns that the important healing has to be spiritual, not physical. It's a simple, touching story well told.
As the show takes us on its journey through the South of 1964, Jeanine Tesori creates songs in a variety of appropriate musical genres -- country, folk, rhythm and blues, and gospel. Her music keeps us in the time and place of the story. It also demonstrates Tesori's enormous talent and versatility -- she's one of the best post-Sondheim composers for musical theatre with an ability to write well in just about every musical genre. Brian Crawley's book is economical and fast-paced (the show lasts an hour and three quarters with no intermission) and his lyrics propel the narrative and give us insights into the characters.
VIOLET has a superb cast of singing actors. Sutton Foster, one of Broadway's best leading ladies, is totally convincing as Violet. Dressed in a frumpy outfit, she stands and moves as if she is trying to hide from the people around her, yet she has the strength to take what she needs from the men she encounters. Of course, Foster's such a terrific singer, you wish she had even more to sing, but VIOLET is more an ensemble piece than a star turn. Joshua Henry is superb as Flick, the Black man who is courageous enough -- or foolish enough -- to want to care for a white woman in the South in 1964. His singing brings down the house. Colin Donnell is effective as the Casanova with a conscience. In flashback scenes Alexander Gemignani plays Violet's loving father and Emerson Steele plays the young Violet. Leigh Silverman has given the musical a simple, fluid staging that tells the story clearly.
We saw the second preview, but you wouldn't have known that the show hasn't been running for a while. There weren't any ragged spots.
VIOLET is a sweet musical with an lovely score and excellent performances. It's the third really good grown-up musical I have seen this week. The audience at my performance obviously loved the show. What's not to love?
VIOLET. Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre. March 29, 2014.