Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 20, 2014
Violet Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. Based on The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts. Based on the New York City Center Encores! Off-Center concert production. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Choreography by Jeffrey Page. Music Direction by Michael Rafter. Set design by David Zinn. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Mark Barton. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Orchestrations by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, Buryl Red. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Dialect Coach Kate Wilson. Cast: Sutton Foster, Colin Donnell, Alexander Gemignani, Joshua Henry, with Ben Davis, Annie Golden, Emerson Steele, Austin Lesch, Anastacia McCleskey, Charlie Pollock, Jacob Keith Watson, Rema Webb, Virginia Ann Woodruff.
This is theatre at its most elemental and absorbing, a sky-high spectacle more than blazing enough to leave Wicked, The Lion King, and Matilda looking like staged readings. Okay, it technically takes place on a unit set and with a cast of 11. When faith, emotions, and even an entire society hang in the balance the way they do here, traditional dimensions and budgets lose all meaning. The journey of title character, a young woman from a tiny town, to visit the televangelist she's convinced will repair her damaged face is, in the hands of the writers, Leigh Silverman (direction), and star Sutton Foster, nearly as epic as Show Boat or Les Misérables.
No easy achievement, that, but you won't detect so much as a bead of sweat amid the effort that has gone into making this revival one of the most electrifying Broadway has seen in years. For a show that failed to live up to its grander commercial promise (in New York, anyway) after its original production at Playwrights Horizons 17 years ago, but flourished in a one-night-only Encores! Off-Center concert last summer (with most of the same key players), this is less a homecoming than a vindication, roof-raising proof that life, even after crushing disappointment, can not only go on but can get much, much better.
Coincidentally, that's also the message of the show, which is based on Doris Betts's short story The Ugliest Pilgrim. Violet (Foster) may think she's hopping a bus from North Carolina to Tulsa specifically for the purpose of restoring her face, which her father accidentally sliced in two with an axe a dozen years earlier, but she has a very different kind of healing to do. And when she meets up with two Army men on the tripMonty (Colin Donnell), a handsome white officer forever on the make, and the black Flick (Joshua Henry)she learns she's not the only one.
And Silverman's rendering should eradicate any lingering doubt that Violet is anything other than one of the great musicals of the last two or three decades. Much of it is in the way Tesori's music fuses a variety of styles from folk to bluegrass to gospel, and weaves them into a pseudo-operatic texture that kindles playful sparks with Crawley's book and lyrics in an intelligent but surprising way that puts it on par with another show that received a high-octane Encores! treatment, Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella. (And the eight-piece band playing Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red's orchestrations under the baton of musical director Michael Rafter, is a swinging spitfire.)
But it's what the songs elicit that matter most. Violet's opening one-two punch, "Surprised" and "On My Way," is a potent statement of pluck from someone who has no cause to offer it, and sets up the energetic structure on which the mild picaresque to come will be based. "Luck of the Draw" smartly links poker hands with the unalterable choices that are often thrust upon us. "Let It Sing" is a deeply psychological spiritual that fixes the unique ties between Flick and Violet, which common (and social) sense say shouldn't or can't exist, whereas the "real" gospel number for the preacher (Ben Davis) and his troupe is almost more of snake-oil lark. And any number of other compositions, from the twangy "Water in the Well" for young Violet (a superb Emerson Steele) to "Lonely Stranger" for a music hall singer (Anasta?ia McClesk?y), reinforce how we're molded by the songs and the very geography that surround us.
Crawley and Tesori haven't just depicted a chunk of a world, they've created a full one from the ground up that adheres to its own musical and dramatic rules and forces you to follow it along. Silverman, respecting it at every turn, has given it animation and physical form, using David Zinn's sets (centered on a honky-tonk, with the band always visible dead-center), Clint Ramos's costumes, and especially Mark Barton's lighting to thrust us into the places that define these people most. Though they're achieved with only simple lights and set pieces, the bus, its station, the dance hall, a seedy bedroom, the revival tent, and Violet's tortured past are so precisely articulated that it often seems as if you're on a Radio City Music Hallsize stage.
The performers, though, are pure Broadway for all the right reasons, and never sacrifice specificity for size. Henry is a knockout, bringing both raw instincts and a palpable sensitivity to Flick; his "Let it Sing" the finest pure vocal moment of the season. Donnell is solid charisma as Monty, and intensely compelling at gradually revealing the fears and the yearnings beneath his ladies'-man façade. Alexander Gemignani is gloriously subtle as Violet's dad, marshaling myriad complex emotions into a stirring portrayal of a man lost in more ways than one. Davis captures inflated fire and brimstone as the preacher, but also the humanity he tries so hard to hide. Annie Golden, in a variety of broken-woman roles, and Rema Webb, as a ceiling slamming gospel soloist, are ideal, as is Steele, a superstar in the making who depicts every nuance of the person Violet is to become.
As the final version of her, Foster is doing hands-down the best work of her career. Though still possessing the clarion belt that guided her to Tony Awards for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, she supplements it by putting on full display the conflicting emotions her character is facing. Tinging her optimism first with unshakable religious fervor, then approaching it more incredulous, and finally questioning everything she's always believed, Foster's Violet undergoes a lifetime of sweeping growth in just 105 minutes of stage time. Yet nothing ever seems rushed or false, and you realize that she's discovering her innermost self just as you are.
When she learns everything there is to know, and comes to her final conclusions about who she is and what she needs, that's when the special effects kick in. Violet's face adorned with a real grin for the first time, and shining in the light of a universe of fresh possibilities, is the kind of bewitching transformation that's too often missing from the musical theatre today. Seeing her shift in personal perspective from despondency to hope, with all the changes in body and soul that employs, may not be magic in the traditional sense, but given how serenely perfect it and the rest of this Violet are, good luck convincing yourself it's not actually even better.