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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sutton Foster
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Uncommon indeed have been the occasions—at least in my experience—that it felt City Center would explode with enthusiasm from the inside out. An audience's approval, an unpredictable but uncorkable force in the best of circumstances, is typically at its strongest in the (relatively) more restricted confines of a Broadway house. Even the Encores! series at its most electric has had trouble raising the roof more than an inch or two, let alone blowing it off entirely. For this reason, and plenty of others, last night's concert production of Violet there, as part of the new Encores! Off-Center series, was a triumphant accomplishment.

Even those who are familiar with this 1997 adaptation of Doris Betts's "The Ugliest Pilgrim," which has music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, may be surprised to hear this. Like many "experimental" musicals from the mid 1990s, which treated topics as diverse as neurosurgery (William Finn's A New Brain) or an intellectual reading of La Ronde (Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again), Violet doesn't have much of a reputation for getting the blood pumping. It has some choice awards under its belt, and is loved unreservedly by a restricted sector of the theatre community, but mixed reviews and a non-Broadway performance history don't suggest a show that trades, even a bit, on the visceral excitement needed to make a megahit out of a succès d'estime.

What Leigh Silverman's take on the material conclusively proved is that this is not a musical that lives inside its own head. It emerges organically from the hearts and pulses of the people it documents, earning as it explores their drives every drop of the sentimentality and redemption on which it trades. From the 25-year-old titular character, who embarks on a bus journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma in 1964 to meet the faith healer she's sure can repair the face that was split in half by an errant axe blade some years earlier, to the two soldiers (one black, Flick, and one white, Monty) who vie for her affections, as well as they others they meet along the way, Tesori and Crawley have established a sprawling musical soundscape that outlines the notion of self-acceptance at its most primal level.

Strains of bluegrass, blues, and honky-tonk pervade the dusty air along Violet's way, and we see how these and other musical forms subtly influence her past (as she recalls her childhood with the father who would eventually disfigure her), present (in the way she connects with, in more ways than one, the soldiers), and future (her impending meeting with the deceptively mortal man she's sure can cure her). But the show truly lives in the in-between moments that give soaring voice to everyone's hopes, whether they're Violet's hauntingly unreasonable expectations of herself or the more realistic impressions of possibility expressed by those around her. And these never sound less than thoroughly original excavations of the soul: gleaming on the surface, but with a hint of tarnish occasionally visible underneath.

It's our dark understanding of what can and will happen to Violet when she reaches her destination, clashing with her beliefs about the outcome, that generate the powerful conflict at the musical's core and keep you riveted throughout what, in lesser renderings, could be a fairly standard picaresque. All these perspectives meld in the revival scene, in a conflagration of gospel that's among the least contrived and manipulative I've ever encountered in a musical, and its stark aftermath, to reset the playing field of both the heroine's life and the world around her, so that she may be better equipped to attain the exaltation—and perhaps even love—she seeks.

Violet is emotionally powerful, yes, but honest in how it comes by that power. Even the biggest showstoppers (Violet's opening "Surprised" and "On My Way," Flick's inspirational "Let it Sing," the revival's "Raise Me Up") feel like they attain their immense theatricality by trying to eschew it, and as a result never stand out as more than what any moment needs at any given time. Crawley's lyrics refreshingly lack self-consciousness, and his book weaves so seamlessly throughout the songs that you're never quite sure where one ends and the other begins. In other words, this is about as traditionally constructed as musicals get these days.

Silverman's approach was old-school as well, relying (heavily) on music stands and script binders, but with no hint of the imposed weight that dragged down last week's inaugural Off-Center entry, The Cradle Will Rock. She kept the action (and your attention) rigidly focused on the vibrant internal lives of everyone, but (in keeping with the writing) letting the attitudes be subtle rather than overwhelming. There was almost no excess of any kind, in fact: Sure, she incorporated 19 members of the Songs of Solomon gospel choir into the faith healing scene (to shocking effect), but otherwise the performers were given no more than they absolutely needed, and performed largely limited blocking and generally kept themselves arranged in a ragged line from wing to wing.

And what performers! Sutton Foster is doubtlessly talented, but is frequently cast in roles that mistake her innate edge for classic Broadway brass and usually end up more impenetrable than lovable. But she's never been better than she was as Violet. Vocally, she was resplendent as rarely before, her voice naturally slid from guttural (but never abrasive) belt to golden shimmer as each new obstacle for the character dictated. Acting-wise, she was even better: By wrapping herself in a cloak of faux charm that could be drawn away from her as the shadowy world approach, you saw how she could mask the agony that festers beneath the woman's mangled skin. (No makeup is used to depict the scar; not that Foster needed any.) And when Violet received what she interpreted as her answer from God, Foster's slight upward tilt of her head and simple smile illuminated the expansive auditorium—and so much more about Violet—with hardly a noticeable shift in Mark Barton's lighting plot. (The simple set suggestion was by Ika Avaliani, the appropriate costumes by Clint Ramos.)

Joshua Henry was magnetic as the believing Flick, singing rapturously wielding a piercing incredulity that only gradually gave way to the understanding that maybe Violet has as much experience as Flick at being judged by externals. Van Hughes never overdid Monty's slickness, and found a surprising amount of heart in a man who often seems to be after nothing more than an easy one-night-stand. As the preacher, Christopher Sieber's oversize gregariousness could not have been better utilized, and he expertly negotiated the deflating moment when the man's own illusions come crashing down. Additional support, from a pitch-perfect Emerson Steele as Young Violet and Chris Sullivan as her father to Rema Webb as a revival soloist to Anastacia McClesky and Keale Settle as a pair of Memphis songstresses, could not have been better.

What will happen with now is anyone's guess. Silverman and her company created something that, in polish and presentation, is leaps and bounds above any musical Broadway did last season, and it would be a shame for that work to go to waste. But Violet has long been a tough sell, and whether mainstream audiences are necessarily ready for it, I can't say. If nothing else, it's good to be reminded that the show is, and has always been, ready for them. And if all that comes out of last night is the awareness that Encores! Off-Center, like its big scale big brother, is capable of scaling such skyscraping heights, those venturous souls who attend it—and the musicals highlighted there—will be among the richest in town.

One Night Only - July 17
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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