The year is 1964. A young woman, disfigured in childhood in a farm accident, is traveling by bus from North Carolina to Tulsa, Okla. Her mission: to contact a televangelist she believes can heal her and take away the scar running across her face.
Along the way she is befriended by two young soldiers, one white, one black, and her journey leads her to discoveries about herself and the world.
That is the narrative spine of “Violet,” a musical by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, based on a short story by Doris Betts, “The Ugliest Pilgrim.”
The show, which blends humor into a dramatic, poignant story, was first seen off-Broadway in 1997. That production claimed a trio of prestigious awards — an Obie, the Lucille Lortel Award and an award from the Drama Critics Circle. Theater folk were buzzing about the possibility of a Broadway transfer that might never come.
The show finally made it to Broadway this year, thanks largely to the box-office muscle of star Sutton Foster, who wanted to play the lead. For the purposes of the Tony Awards, the Broadway production was considered a revival. And though it received several nominations, it did not receive a Tony.
Now Michael Grayman and Andy Parkhurst, founders of Spinning Tree Theatre, are staging the show in what they hope will be the spirit of the original off-Broadway production. Parkhurst and Grayman saw the Foster version and thought it was a bit too amped-up for the Broadway audience, even though by Great White Way standards it was a fairly simple production. And Foster stripped herself of glamour.
“We never saw the original production, but we’ve always enjoyed the music from the original so much more,” Grayman said. “We’re just bringing it back to the story and simplifying it a lot.
“The Broadway production we didn’t love. It didn’t quite get to the heart of the story. In my opinion and in Andrew’s opinion, it is not a Broadway story. It was probably never meant to go beyond Playwrights Horizons (which produced the original).”
Grayman and Parkhurst are co-directing and co-choreographing the show, which features Lauren Braton in the title role with Matthew King and Daniel Beeman as the young soldiers. They lead a big supporting cast that includes Linnaia McKenzie, Julie Shaw, Tim Ahlenius, Damian Blake and Bob Linebarger.
Spinning Tree is a nomadic company that uses various venues and for this show returns to Just Off Broadway, where the troupe staged a memorable production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” last year.
Grayman, Parkhurst and the cast enjoyed a stroke of luck because their first week of rehearsal coincided with a visit home from Lauren Ward, a Broadway actress who was born and raised in Olathe. Ward played Violet in the original production. She lives in London and received a Tony nomination last year for her work in “Matilda the Musical.”
Ward and Parkhurst have known each other for years, and when he and Grayman asked her to drop by to visit with the cast, she was happy to oblige.
“It was their first day of rehearsal, so I just met (the cast) and was probably more of a cheerleader and let them ask me questions,” Ward said.
Ward said she was glad that Sutton Foster had the clout to get the show to Broadway and felt no pangs of regret for never getting a chance to reprise the role.
“Not really,” she said. “I’m 44 now and, you know, I was 24 when I was first in a workshop, and I feel like I did it. I created it, and so much of myself is in it. But that’s a whole other time in my life.”
When Ward says she created the role, she’s not exaggerating. When she and the other actors began work on the piece, it was unfinished. And the performers had significant input in terms of shaping their characters.
“I think I had quite a bit of influence,” Ward said. “I mean, any actor would say that, wouldn’t they? But (director) Susan Schulman is a phenomenal dramaturg, and I think between Susan and (choreographer) Kathleen Marshall and (actor) Michael McElroy, we had a lot of input in the way the piece was devised and moved forward. When we started on it, only a third of it had been written.”
One decision that has carried over into every subsequent production was to have no special makeup depicting Violet’s scar. That is left to the viewers’ imagination.
“When it’s a new piece, it becomes very tailored to the people originating the roles, because they’re writing it as you’re there,” she said. “So I would sometimes say, ‘This line doesn’t sound right to me,’ and ‘Can we try this?’ It’s a very collaborative process.”
For Braton, landing the lead role in “Violet” fulfills an ambition she has nurtured for years. Often cast in musical revues, she has in the last year established herself as formidable comic actress, first as Fiona in the Coterie’s production of “Shrek the Musical” and then as the embittered Countess in Spinning Tree’s production of “A Little Night Music.”
But she has never been asked to play a dramatic role until now.
“I’m thrilled,” Braton said. “I remember when I was first cast, I started crying a little bit because I hadn’t had that opportunity yet. Everything I’ve done was ingenue-ish with the exception of the Countess in ‘A Little Night Music.’
“But I’m a little older now. I’ve been preparing. I’m not scared or anything, but it’s, ‘OK, here we go on this journey.’”
On the surface Braton might not seem the logical choice to play a traumatized girl from the sticks. But Braton, who by any measure is an exceptional singer and often projects a glamorous image, said looks can be deceiving.
“I’ve been pulling a lot from my own experience,” she said. “I know I don’t have a giant scar on my face, but I was a child who was extremely withdrawn. Theater actually got me out of myself.
“In school I was made fun of for the clothes I wore and the way I wore my hair. I was just not like everyone else.… We all have a journey and have something painful or something that changed us. And this story brings out those moments in all of us.”
Braton said she connects with Violet in another way as well, thanks to her semi-rural upbringing in Lee’s Summit.
“I grew up on a farm, 40 acres, helped my father bale hay,” she said. “We raised ducks. I’ve chased off coyotes. The people I’ve dealt with the majority of my life are country folk. And it’s a different lifestyle.
“I also lived in Sedalia (Mo.) for four years, and that was a very rural area, too. I consider myself a rural person, even though I’m very much a city girl, too.”
Grayman said he and Parkhurst had Braton in mind for “Violet” from the beginning.
“We thought right away Lauren was perfect for this role,” Grayman said. “We saw other people, but Lauren was always the front-runner.”