Entertainment

Violet

by Frank J. Avella
Contributor
Saturday Apr 26, 2014
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Emerson Steele and Ben Davis in ’Violet’
Emerson Steele and Ben Davis in ’Violet’  (Source:Joan Marcus)

Sutton Foster fans please be advised, when stepping into the American Airlines Theater, that the Sutton Foster you are about to see is not peppy "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (not even a slightly modern version), nor is she vampy Reno Sweeney ("Anything Goes"); or cartwheeling stage star Janet van de Graaf ("The Drowsy Chaperone").

Even viewers of the underrated TV series, "Bunheads," will be taken aback. This is a Sutton Foster you’ve never seen before, a full immersion into the mind, body and spirit of Violet, an angry, bitter and slightly delusional young woman who is on an infectious journey of discovery.

First produced at Playwrights Horizons in 1997 where it picked up a few awards, "Violet," has been revived by Roundabout Theatre Company after a highly regarded one-night performance last year at New York City Center as part of Encores!

Based on the short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, "Violet" is the oddball musical brainchild of Brian Crawley (libretto) and Jeanine Tesori (music) who fashioned a countrified chamber piece with a bluesy/gospel edge. In this splendid Broadway production, effectively and seamlessly staged by Leigh Silverman, the power of the simple but potent story is allowed to soar via the stirring songs that actually further action and layer characterization.

The plot surrounds North Carolina gal, Violet, and the potentially life-changing quest she embarks on. It’s 1964 and twelve years earlier, our heroine was struck in the face with an axe while her dad (Alexander Gemignani) was chopping wood.

The non-linear story ping pongs back and forth in time as Young Violet (Emerson Steele) interacts with her guilt-ridden father and twentysomething Violet boards a bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma where she fervently believes a televangelist can heal her. And, as ridiculous as that might sound one must understand that Violet has kept herself sheltered for over a decade and is now, finally, allowing herself to say "yes" instead of "no." She’s ready to meet the world head on.

Along her spiritual road trip, Violet encounters two soldiers with whom she almost immediately bonds (via a game of poker, which her dad taught her): Monty (Colin Donnell), the cocky, matinee idol lothario and his more tentative black friend Flick (Joshua Henry). Flick understands the prejudice that Violet encounters because of her disfigurement since he must endure bigotry based on the color of his skin, every day, living in the 1960’s segregated south.

Violet is drawn to both men for different reasons but develops feelings of true love for one of them. It’s a fascinating triangle and both men grow because of her.

In this splendid Broadway production, effectively and seamlessly staged by Leigh Silverman, the power of the simple but potent story is allowed to soar via the stirring songs.

As for Violet, she meets her faith healer (Ben Davis) and, well, you can probably guess the rest but whether she is healed or not doesn’t matter as much as what she learns about herself and about life. Similar themes of physical vs. spiritual deformity are explored in another current revival, "The Cripple of Inishmaan."

Brian Crawley’s book is riveting throughout and Crawley and Tesori’s songs are terrific, from the rousing, "On My Way" to Violet’s dream ditty "All to Pieces," where she explains how she desires the different features of Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, among other Hollywood beauties.

The supporting cast is uniformly good with the delightful Annie Golden a standout in various roles including an aging prostitute. The supremely underrated Golden has done wonderful work onstage since the ’70s.

Colin Donnell has dashing Jon Hamm looks and delivers a surprisingly moving performance -- surprising only because it would be easy for this actor to coast on his looks and charisma.

Joshua Henry’s Flick feels like a powder keg ready to blow. In his show stopping number "Let it Sing," he’s able to lose control, if only for a moment.

As for Sutton Foster, she delivers a staggeringly rich and complex portrayal of intense pining and yearning. Foster’s Violet moves like a browbeaten gal who refuses capitulation. Her look is uber-unglam, pouty and dowdy.

But Foster infuses Violet’s often-disturbing inner world with tremendous passion, dignity and a hint of self-confidence-or a hope she can acquire it. And Foster’s sheer vocal power is, to quote her ’Little Women’ tour de force number), "astonishing."

The leading ladies of musical theatre with their astounding vocal prowess and dramatic abilities have stolen the season. From Kelli O’Hara in "The Bridges of Madison County," to Audra McDonald in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill," to Jessie Mueller in "Beautiful: The Carol King Musical." Now we can easily add Sutton Foster in "Violet" to that illustrious list.

"Violet" enjoys a limited run through August 10 at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street in New York City. For information and tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit roundabouttheatre.org

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for Edge. His film column can be read at newyorkcool.com. Frank is also a proud Dramatists Guild member having written a slew of plays including "Consent," which confronts bullying and homophobia and was a 2012 semifinalist for the 2012 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, "Vatican Falls," a play set against the backdrop of the Catholic sex abuse scandal which received Special Mention at the 2013 O’Neill (and will be produced next season) and his latest, "Orville Station." Ten of his plays have been produced (seven in NYC).

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