This Broadway season audiences have been treated to performances from two of the most dynamic actresses in musical theater today. Kelli O’Hara, displaying an inner strength and determination, in The Bridges of Madison Country; and now Sutton Foster in Violet.
Foster, known more for her exuberant roles in such musicals as Anything Goes, Shrek – The Musical, and Thoroughly Modern Millie, plays against type in Violet. Here, she is as plain as can be—simple look, unadorned clothing, and a no-nonsense manner. As the title character, we learn, as a young teenager, she was horribly disfigured by an axe head, which flew off the handle while her father was chopping wood. Now, as a 25 year-old woman, she begins a journey, via bus, from her quaint homestead in the North Carolina hills to Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, she fervently believes, a charismatic televangelist, will use the power of the lord to heal her facial scar. Along the way she meets two soldiers, Monty, handsome and more of a womanizer; and his friend and traveling companion, Flick, African-American, rugged and, in his own way, psychologically scarred. The time is September 1964 and the south is not a hospitable place to men like Flick. During their travels the three bond as they draw close to each other for support and solace. Paralleling the story are flashbacks to Violet’s childhood with her father. The girl’s mother is out of the picture. Did she run away with another man? Pass away? We never know.
One of the reasons that Violet is a strong piece of theater is the bare-bones narrative structure. Brian Crawley’s book, based on the short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” brings out the essence of Violet’s situation and her interactions, both as a young lass and woman. There is very little clutter. Our attention is centered on the action on stage during the almost two hour, intermission-less production.
The other reason the show is so worthwhile is the superb cast, led by Sutton Foster. We feel the pain and humiliation of her condition (even though no make-up is used to depict her scar). She is resolute, strong-willed and, yet, vulnerable. We empathize with her setbacks and applaud her triumphs. Colin Donnell, as Monty, comes across with self-confidence oozing from his pores, but underneath he is fragile and self-doubting. Joshua Henry, as with his two companions, has a brave front, but underneath the façade is a hurting, yet proud individual. Henry imbues his character with dignity and honor in the face of racial affronts. Alexander Gemignani is marvelous in the small, but pivotal, role of Violet’s father. His distress and frustration of raising a teenage daughter is so apparent. The torment he feels from the accidental maiming of the young Violet is an anguish we, in the audience, also feel. Emerson Steele, makes a head-turning Broadway debut as the blossoming younger Violet. She is so self-assured and spirited in her portrayal. This is an actress to keep an eye on in the future.
The score, with music by the veteran composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Brian Crawley, has depth, emotional weight and rousing moments. As a whole, the songs are well-conceived and sung with passionate and emotive clarity.
Director Leigh Silverman, working with minimal props and sets, and a handful of onstage musicians, smartly puts the focus on the three primary actors as they banter, tease, argue, and connect on their individual and shared odyssey. Silverman skillfully blends the two stories—the past and present—into a well-balanced and fluid production. He deftly seasons the musical with careful placement and incorporation of the other equally satisfying supporting actors.
Violet, different from the typical Broadway fare, but well-worth our attention, at the Roundabout Theatre Company on 42nd Street, now through August 10th.