Tensions build among this odd triangle, particularly during a wonderfully choreographed (by Kathleen Marshall) scene at a Memphis roadhouse where the trio pass a night together. (Crawley’s book wisely makes no coy, virginal heroine out of Violet — she more than holds her own with the drinking, gambling soldiers, and invites either into her bed. Only one accepts.)
In addition to introducing various secondary characters on the bus, the first act flashes back to scenes depicting the child Violet (Amanda Posner) and her father (Stephen Lee Anderson). A loving, though guilt-edged relationship — Father’s carelessness might have caused the disfiguring ax-blade accident, and he then failed to get the best medical care — the subplot (and a terrific performance by young Posner) neatly establishes Violet’s independent nature and painful insecurity.
Perhaps because it weaves past and present, the first act is weakened by a sketchy structure that, at least initially, makes “Violet” seem somehow unfinished, as if the score’s big ballads and rousing dance numbers were being workshopped prior to a more elaborate staging. The problem is especially tricky since the charms of “Violet” lie in part in an unassuming modesty, and almost certainly would be diminished by a fancier production.
But even during the first act, director Schulman (and, one assumes, choreographer Marshall) handles some tricky moments with an elegant simplicity — a dream sequence, for example, seamlessly melds past and present, as does the staging of one of the show’s liveliest, catchiest songs, “Luck of the Draw,” in which Violet plays poker with her soldiers while a simultaneous flashback shows her younger self learning the game from her father.
Much of the second act takes place at the revival-hall church where the preacher works his scam. The gospel numbers (especially Roz Ryan’s solo) are no less rousing for being de rigueur, and Robert Westenberg does a terrific, manic spin on a Southern televangelist who isn’t what he seems (the unsubtle parallel between Violet’s rather abrupt disenchantment with the preacher and Dorothy’s encounter with the Wizard of Oz is as obvious as the bright red shoes both girls wear).
“Violet” doesn’t outrun its problems. While much of Tesori’s score is a delightful pastiche of rhythm-and-blues, country and gospel, at least a few songs (particularly ballads) come off as generic piano-bar show tunes crossed with mediocre Andrew Lloyd Webber. Crawley’s book can’t quite convince that a character as smart and savvy as Violet could ever really believe in the miracle she seeks, and the dangers of interracial love in the South of 1964 are touched upon but not fully addressed.
But what might split audiences most is Ward’s risky, outsize performance in the lead role. Though she sings the musical numbers without flaw, her acting is of the swaggering, larger-than-life style that would seem more appropriate to a cartoonish comedy — “Annie Get Your Gun” comes to mind — than a naturalistic musical drama like “Violet.” This isn’t bad acting — Ward is a performer who can make us believe in her character’s disfigurement without makeup or facial distortion — but a specific performance choice; the difference, unfortunately, gets lost more than once.
Too big or not, Ward’s approach still pays off with the character’s ultimate acceptance of her face and fate, and the other performers, particularly the young, strong-voiced Posner and, as the father, Anderson, are quite good. Several cast members hit sour notes during the score’s more soaring moments at the reviewed performance, but time should smooth things out.
Tech credits, as usual at Playwrights Horizons, are spare but sturdy, with Derek McLane’s set (bus seats whisked on and off, the preacher’s pulpit dramatically lit by Peter Kaczorowski) in keeping with the unfussy tone of the production. Resident theaters across the country, which almost certainly will take notice of “Violet” if they already haven’t, can find much in Schulman’s staging to emulate.