I was rooting for “Violet” from the first musical note to the curtain call.
I’m a sucker for simple stories about unsophisticated but big-hearted people who dwell far, far away from the tawdry commercialism of the Broadway theater district and the digital swamps of pop culture. Ultimately, though, this show let me down, but not for lack commitment by most of the artists involved.
Based on a short story by Doris Betts, this piece from composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist/book writer Brian Crawley has apparently been streamlined since its original off-Broadway production in 1997. But streamlined or not, this unassuming little one-act musical seems out of place on the Broadway stage. Worse, after creating reasonably compelling portraits of people wrestling with daunting real-world problems, Crawley opts for an “uplifting” conclusion that feels cheap.
Set in the American South, circa 1964, the show tells a potentially poignant tale of a young woman traveling by bus to Tulsa, Okla., where she hopes a televangelist can heal the terrible facial scar she has borne since childhood. The production, wisely, leaves the scar to our imagination, but its effect is to make Violet an outsider, even among her own people. So it’s not surprising when she strikes up a friendship with two soldiers traveling on the same bus. Monty, who is white, and Flick, an African-American, both develop a fondness for Violet as they get to know each other and talk her into partying with them overnight in Memphis. Monty’s interest is physical, while Flick’s is deeply emotional and profound. Ultimately the three-way relationship becomes complicated and bittersweet.
Sutton Foster, who has made her name as a musical comedy star, here gets to tackle a serious role with nothing to hide behind except her talent. Made up and costumed to look plain, Foster achieves impressive emotional depth in a character who is honest and direct to a fault. Colin Donnell as Monty and Joshua Henry as Flick match her with thoughtful, keenly observed performances. The three principals are so charismatic that they easily invite you into the world of the play.
Part of the story is told in flashback, as the young Violet (Emerson Steele) struggles in a difficult relationship with her father (Alexander Gemignani), who may be responsible for the shocking accident involving an ax that scarred his daughter.
Ultimately, Violet makes it to Tulsa, where she begs the Preacher (Ben Davis) to work a miracle. He has to admit that he’s more of a showman than a healer and has no power to help her. Even so, Violet is overtaken by a vision in which she believes, if only for a moment, that her scar is gone and that she can now be “normal.”
Tesori’s music ranges freely to incorporate gospel, rock and blues into a sort of roots montage that now and then veers into familiar Broadway songwriting conventions. And some of the performances are extraordinary. Henry’s performance of “Let It Sing,” a stirring anthem about appreciating life’s simple gifts, is a show-stopper. And “Raise Me Up,” a high-octane ensemble number with a gospel feel led by the Preacher, is irresistible. It’s the biggest number in the show and shouts “Broadway!” more loudly than any other.
Maybe because I grew up in the boondocks, I tend to view show-bizzy depictions of rural folks skeptically. It’s too easy to render “simple” characters as cartoons and stereotypes. To its credit, “Violet” avoids those pitfalls for most of its running time. Foster’s performance is a model of economy. Her character descends into histrionics only briefly toward the end of the show. But by that time the writers have allowed the story to descend into obviousness. (“We’re all beautiful on the inside,” it seems to say.)
And like many other plays and movies, “Violet” depicts folks living far from the country’s cultural centers as just a little too simple, a little too digestible, a little too benign. The show depicts a version of the South in 1964 where racism is considerably softer than the codified nightmare of history. If the historical backdrop had been a bit more realistic, it might have heightened the emotional resonance in the mutual attraction of Violet and Flick — two lonely pilgrims on the road to an unknown destination.
Bob on Broadway
The Star’s theater critic, Robert Trussell, traveled to New York recently to watch and review several Tony-nominated plays and musicals. See his reviews of “Act One,” “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” “All the Way” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” on KansasCity.com. The Tony Awards are June 8 and will be broadcast on CBS.