If you like country music, bluegrass, lowdown rock and lots of gospel, you’ll find yourself moved by Jeanine Tesori’s score which was first heard off Broadway in 1997 in a well received Manhattan Theatre Club production that found critical favor.
Based on a story by Doris Betts, the musical has a book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, one that also was highly praised when the show was first mounted. It’s only fitting that a piece as honored as this one was should have a second chance, and the Roundabout has adorned it with the gifted and popular star Sutton Foster, whose work in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Anything Goes and The Drowsy Chaperone has built her a substantial fan base. Much attention has been paid this time round by my colleagues in the press to her performance in this darker musical, almost all of them finding her work complex, powerful and moving. Almost all of them were vastly impressed by Ms. Tesori’s work and that of her collaborator. I wish I could join in the general jubilation, but to my great surprise I found Violet, for the most part, familiar and frankly somewhat tedious.
It’s not Sutton Foster’s fault, and she registers as a deformed young lady who has lived since she was thirteen with a disfiguring scar on her face, inflicted in a tragic accident when an axe used by her father to chop wood became unhinged, and as she was nearby watching, it slashed her. Fear not, for we see it only for a moment in a flashback involving the young Violet and in one of the older Violet’s flashes of memory, we catch a glimpse of the awful gash on her younger self.
Ms. Foster’s performance is impeccable, but my problem with it is merely that Violet herself is understandably morose, consumed by the fire and brimstone evangelism of a preacher on TV who so mesmerizes her that she leaves home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to seek him out in Oklahoma, for she’s convinced he can save her, and restore her face to its normal state. Along the way, on the bus, she is joined by two service men who feel instinctively protective of her, and for a time, they join forces. One is Flick, the other Monty and after playing poker with her at one of the bus stops, they prevail on her to open herself up to a tiny drink and a dance at a broken down music hall in Memphis.
Monty, the more carefree of the two, slips into her room in the hotel in which she is sleeping, for what both imagine will be a happy moment. But Monty begins to have feelings for her. Flick is somewhat dismissed, and when she realizes it’s he she prefers, their little triangle becomes more complicated. She finally finds her preacher man, falls completely under his spell, and is convinced he has saved her, that her scars have vanished. When she brings her “new face ” to the two men in her life, she realizes nothing has changed at all, not to her outer self. But she has found acceptance and she chooses one of them, the one closest to understanding how an outsider like her copes with isolation.
The one act musical is loaded with music, played by a band onstage (they call it an orchestra but “band” seems more appropriate) under the very strong baton of Michael Rafter. The young Violet (Emerson Steele) begins the evening with something called “Water in the Well”, not one word of which did I understand, as the young actress, when singing amplified, is simply unintelligible. Though the show is played in the fairly large American Airlines Theatre, Leon Rothenberg’s sound design is excessive and is not a friend to the singers, particularly the ladies in the cast. Sutton Foster has a magnificent voice for theatre, and needs no help in being heard all over the house. When “helped” as she is here, now and again we get a shrill final vibrato, and we think: “Ethel Merman amplified?” Wrong.
With 23 numbers doing most of the book’s work — a great deal of the story is sung in recitative, and that forces the melodies to wander all over the place. There are several soft numbers; one, “Lay Down Your Head” gives Ms. Foster a chance to tenderly sing to Monty who has fallen asleep on her bed. “Let It Sing” gives Joshua Henry a chance to show the stuff he had in The Scottsboro Boys. His performance throughout is incisive and engaging even though Flick spends much of the middle section of the play on the fringes. It’s the actor’s performance that fills the missing parts. Colin Donnell, who played with Ms. Foster in the revival of Anything Goes, is appealing as Monty and handles his musical numbers well, but the songs themselves are not memorable. Annie Golden as two very distinctive characters, one an old lady on the bus, the other an aged hooker refusing to go quietly into the night, makes her mark. She contributes a lot.
Leigh Silverman’s direction keeps things moving, but by using a unit set, which is basically the bus station, he has characters wandering on and off stage, often leaving stage left and re-entering stage right as though they were somewhere else. Sometimes David Zinn’s set works fine — a sliding drawer allows a double bed to appear easily, and suddenly we are in Violet’s hotel room without any fuss. But with the band on full display on a raised platform all through the play, it is sometimes tricky to be certain we know where we are. When needed, members of the ensemble seem to drift onstage just in time to sing, though where they came from, or indeed where they are, is sometimes vague.
In the end, of course, this is Violet’s journey, and there’s still no question that Sutton Foster is one of this generation’s bright lights on the musical stage. But I found that dulling her down, putting her in flats and a dingy house dress, letting her hair hang limply to her shoulders — yes she played the role honestly, with humility and strength when it was needed — but all that doesn’t play to her strengths. Just as certain musical comedy legends are not comfortable in heavier works (Bert Lahr in Waiting For Godot, Fred Astaire in the film “On The Beach”), just as some brilliant dramatic stars just don’t have the knack to carry a musical (Bette Davis in Two’s Company, Robert Ryan in Mister President) so I submit my minority opinion that the radiant Sutton Foster uses the full wattage of her star power when she’s got a shipload of sailors or a stage full of dancing dolls behind her.
I’m aware that I’m in the minority among my colleagues, most of whom found the score and the book quite marvelous, and certainly Sutton Foster giving, as one of them wrote, “a career turning performance.” But for once I found I couldn’t rise to the occasion and stand and cheer along with most of the house with whom I shared Wednesday’s matinée.
Violet is onstage at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, 10036.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.