Violet, staged by the Roundabout Theatre Group at the American Airlines Theatre and directed by Leigh Silverman, is a beautiful little gem of a show. Originally an off-Broadway production in 1997, it never made it to Broadway till now, despite winning the Drama Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. Currently the show is in previews (I was at the sold out Sunday matinee), with its official opening night April 20, 2014.
Set in 1964, Violet is the story of a disfigured young woman from a small mountain town in Nouth Carolina, who travels by Greyhound bus to Memphis to ask a televangelist preacher to heal her horribly scarred face. In a stage technique commonly referred to as “Elephant Man-itis,” the audience does not see the scar, but infers from the characters’ reactions that it is severe. Violet (two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster) is sick of being ugly, tired of children recoiling from her in horror, tired of taunts from teenagers and false sympathy from adults.
From the very beginning of the show, we see both Violet and Young Violet (Emerson Steele), her 13-year-old self who was accidentally mutilated by her father (Alexander Gemignani) when his ax slipped and struck her in the face. During several of the numbers, both the contemporary and fantasy past Violet sing in counterpoint, with fantasy Father and the contemporary characters accompanying in counterpoint. The past and the present are thus intertwined for Violet, with the emotional pain of her injury still fresh twelve years later.
Her bitterness is armor she wears as she boards the bus, practically daring the other passengers to notice her deformity (“Surprised”). She finds, though, that they travel with trials of their own: an old lady who dreads moving in with her son and his family, an African-American woman harassed by her white male seat mate, and two young soldiers who have finished basic training. Monty (Colin Donnell), a flirtatious rogue, and Flick (Joshua Henry), an African-American who understands too well how it feels to be judged by his appearance, draw Violet out and travel with her through her journey of self-discovery.
The score of Violet (music by Jeanne Tesori, book and lyrics by Brian Crawley) melds bluegrass, country, Memphis blues, and rousing gospel. The set design by David Zinn features the look of a mid-century rustic bus station, all in blues. The orchestra is onstage throughout the show on a raised platform, guitars and banjos set up in stands near the plaid-wearing musicians. The performance swirls in front of, around, and across the edge of the platform, integrating entrances and exits of the past and present characters. Simple dining chairs double as bus seats, as the passengers pantomime the rough motion of the Greyhound.
Sutton Foster has a beautiful voice, though it’s not showcased much other than in her solo “Lay Down Your Head.” The songs are mostly duets and ensemble numbers, and are effective as such, particularly “On My Way,” “Luck of the Draw,” and “Down the Mountain.” Emerson Steele shows off her own lovely voice in “Water in the Well.” Joshua Henry’s solo “Let It Sing” garnered a tremendous response from the audience, though I found it a little American Idol-ish. Perhaps the most charming (and heartbreaking) song in the show is “All to Pieces,” in which Violet reveals that she expects God and the preacher not only to heal her scarred face, but to make her as beautiful as a Hollywood starlet. She wants “Ingrid Bergman’s cheekbones, Ava Gardiner’s eyebrows, Gene Tierney’s eyes…” Monty and Flick play along with her, not realizing that she is dead serious, her faith unshakable that the Lord and the preacher will make this all come true.
When she finally arrives at the television studio in Memphis, the rev and his gospel choir are in full swing, with the only big show-stopper number “Raise Me Up.” It turns out only to be a show rehearsal, not a real faith healing, and the televangelist condescendingly dismisses Violet. Unable to accept that it was all a sham, she enters a trance, imagining a confrontation with her father (“Look at Me,” “This is What I Could Do”), at the end of which she forgives him for the accident. Emotionally healed, she awakens and believes that her face has been healed as well. She hurries back to Monty and Flick, but is devastated when she realizes the healing was all in her mind. Flick comforts her and makes her see that they both have changed, that they belong together because of the pain they have overcome and the strength they give each other (“Promise Me Violet”). The whole cast comes back on stage for the soaring finale “Bring Me to Light.”
Violet is a “small” musical, tight and self-contained. There are no elaborate moveable sets, no fabulous costume changes. The orchestra is composed of nine musicians in plaid shirts, on stage rather than down in the pit. Yet there is such a sense of flow throughout the show, an emotional manifestation of Violet’s physical bus journey, which is only imagined. The players, particularly Sutton Foster, fairly explode with enthusiasm, rage, and joy. I had never even heard of this show five days ago, but I am fortunate to have experienced it now.
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