Broadway Review: ‘Violet’ Starring Sutton Foster

The title role of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's winsome 1997 musical feels tailor-made for Broadway It Girl Foster, reprising a galvanic performance.

Sutton Foster, Colin Donnell, Alexander Gemignani, Joshua Henry.  With Ben Davis, Annie Golden, Emerson Steele.

With Idina, Hedwig, and Sally Bowles in town, is it possible for a modest musical heroine like “Violet” to survive on Broadway?  Let’s hope so, because helmer Leigh Silverman and collaborating creatives have done a lovely job of reviving this winsome 1997 musical by Brian Crawley (book & lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music).  The title role — of a disfigured farm girl who buses through the segregated American South in 1964 to be healed by an evangelical preacher in Tulsa — feels tailor-made for Broadway It Girl Sutton Foster (“Anything Goes”), whose galvanic concert perf at Encores! jump-started this revival.

You can see it in her face, hear it in her voice: Foster really feels for Violet Karl, an orphaned farm girl from some hick town in North Carolina who was disfigured as a child when an accident with her father’s ax blade (a scene staged without mercy by helmer Silverman) left her with an ugly scar down the side of her face.  Foster doesn’t have to wear icky latex makeup because the scar is left to the imagination, but she doesn’t get to wear any prettifying makeup, either, and her gorgeous gams are well-hidden in the rag-bag costume supplied by costumer Clint Ramos.  That alone signifies deep commitment from a star of her caliber.

After the death of her widower father (Alexander Gemignani, rich voice, broken heart), naive Violet gets it into her head to make a pilgrimage to Tulsa, Okla., to be healed by a charismatic televangelist (Ben Davis).  Her journey begins in the Greyhound bus station designed by David Zinn as one of those soulless waiting rooms where strangers come and go, dragging their hopes and dreams behind them in mismatched pieces of battered luggage.  During the course of the show, the set serves as other waystations that offer shelter in a storm: diner, bar, cheap hotel, church.

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Dreaming of her “brand new face” (with Grace Kelly’s nose and Ingrid Bergman’s cheekbones) gives Violet the courage to take the first step on her journey.  “As I’m going along / I carry with me / Promises that can’t go wrong,” she sings in the rousing “On My Way,” lifting the spirits of a whole busload of hopeful pilgrims and bold adventurers.

One of these pilgrims is the anxious old lady (Annie Golden, a sight for sore eyes) who is headed for Nashville to move in with her last living son, three rambunctious grandsons, (“I am right tired of children,” she confides) and a daughter-in-law who isn’t at all anxious to have her. Among the adventurers are two young soldiers fresh out of boot camp and likely to be shipped out to Vietnam, the devilishly handsome lady-killer Monty (Colin Donnell) and his African-American buddy, Flick (Joshua Henry), who is finding travel a challenge in the Deep South, still rigidly segregated in the two months since the Civil Rights Act became law.

“Left my troubles all behind me / Back there when I climbed on board,” they all sing.  But did they really leave all their troubles behind?

Violet is a brave girl to leave her mountain home and strike out for the unknown.  The same might be said of composer Tesori (“Fun Home”), who turns her back on the brassy “Broadway sound” that tends to make mincemeat out of non-formulaic material. Here, she works in a country/folk/bluegrass/gospel musical idiom more faithful to Violet’s rural roots and simple faith.

The first stop is Memphis, “by way of Johnson City, Kingsport, Knoxville, Nashville, and a buncha towns no bigger’n this one.”  (Crawley, who scribbled the book, also supplied the clever, unconventional lyrics.) But it’s a long way to Memphis, and to while away the time at rest stops, Violet gins up a card game with the two soldiers. In a disarming flashback with a lively song called “Luck of the Draw,” we watch a younger Violet (played with spirit by Emerson Steele) being tutored at cards by her father as a smart way of teaching her arithmetic.

As a result, our shrinking Violet loses her painful self-consciousness and turns into a regular card shark once she gets a deck in her hands. “I get mad if I’m cheated,” she warns the soldiers, winning their cash and charming them both far more than she realizes.  Once she’s at her ease, Violet is a pistol.  “Coupla barnyard cocks,” she mocks them after some horseplay.  “Brain the size of a walnut — tiny little peckers, too.”

By the time the bus gets to Memphis for an overnight break, both guys are smitten with this ugly but strangely attractive girl.  Monty courts her by revealing the lonely little boy that Violet has shrewdly recognized in him (in the lovely, lyrical “Lay Down Your Head”).  But Flick, who knows how it feels to be judged by something superficial, like the scar on your face or the color of your skin, gives her something more precious in “Let It Sing,” a roof-raising gospel shout that Henry sends all the way up to heaven.

By the time they leave Memphis — where a visit to Beale Street inspires a great blues number (“Anyone Would Do”) that Golden, as a weary old hooker, delivers with wry humor — both of these hunky guys are sweet on Violet.  But she’s determined to make it to Tulsa, where her encounter with that charlatan preacher leads to the kind of “healing” that’s far more satisfying than anything Violet imagined.

Broadway Review: 'Violet' Starring Sutton Foster

American Airlines Theater; 740 seats; $142 top. Opened April 20, 2014. Reviewed April 18. Running time: ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.

Production: A Roundabout Theater Company presentation, in association with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, David Mirvish, Barry and Fran Weissler, Elizabeth Armstrong, Mary Jo and Ted Shen, based on the New York City Center "Encores!" Off-Center concert production, of a musical in one act, based on a short story, "The Ugliest Pilgrim," by Doris Betts, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, and music by Jeanine Tesori.

Creative: Directed by Leigh Silverman. Sets, David Zinn; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Mark Barton; sound, Leon Rothenberg; hair & wig, Charles G. LaPointe; orchestrations, Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red; musical coordinator, Seymour Red Press; music direction, Michael Rafter; choreography, Jeffrey Page; dialect coach, Kate Wilson; production stage manager, Kristen Harris.

Cast: Sutton Foster, Colin Donnell, Alexander Gemignani, Joshua Henry.  With Ben Davis, Annie Golden, Emerson Steele.

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