A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The musical version of Violet Karl's journey was produced by Playwrights Horizon which so commendably has consistently stuck to its mission of launching new works like Tesori's fledgling musical. Her subsequent work, including this season's Pulitzer Prize runner-up Fun Home, indicates that Tesori has, like Violet, matured. But the charm and solid musical theatricality of that first production won it enough fans for a cast recording. It also inspired by a one-night Encores! concert version which brought a nod from Broadway producers.
As Michelle Williams's Sally Bowles adds that something new to the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of a bigger, splashier hit — Kander and Ebb's Cabaret— so their revival of the less known Violet at the American Airlines Theatre is newly invigorated by having a true Broadway musical star. That star is Sutton Foster who in 2002 saw that understudy-to-star come true in a California production of Thoroughly Modern Millie (music also by Tesori).
I can't imagine anyone currently working in musical theater who would be as perfect a Violet as Foster is. She inhabits this mountain girl's naive feistiness as well as her insecurity and neediness (as in her plaintive "Mama, your book says Its blessed to pity'/Mama, just look, Im a long ways from pretty'/Be an angel Mama, help to save me/Make the Lord restore the face you gave me").
At the beginning Foster's stage presence and big belting voice seem to make Violet too strong and determined to make her a totally believable innocent abroad. But not for long. The way Foster and the entire company bring out the harmonies of Tesori's twangy mix of bluegrass, blues and gospel quickly wins the day.
By the time we get to the catchy "Luck of the Draw" it's clear that Broadway hasn't robbed this musical of its simple small show charm. That high energy number has Violet and her new friends Monty (Colin Donnell) and Flick (Joshua Henry) sing simultaneously with Young Violet (Emerson Steele) and her father (Alexander Gemingani) — Violet beating the soldiers in a game of poker, and her younger self learning the game from her father as a math lesson. That song and the score overall are rich enough and the story big-hearted enough to substantiate the producers' decision to add a Broadway stop to Violet's journey.
As staged by Leigh Silverman and her design team, the Broadway production retains librettist Brian Crawleys's past and present sequences and has them meld seamlessly into the whole and deepen Violet's character. In the same way, while Sutton Foster is the star, she also blends in her performance to be part of the ensemble. Her scar is now, as it was originally, left to our imagination.
The three actors portraying the main characters in Violet's journey couldn't be better: Colin Donnell who was last teamed with Foster in Anything Goes again charms as Monty, the soldier whose seduction has Violet sing him the heart stopping lullaby "Lay Down Your Head" (Lay down your head, and sleep, sleep/ Ill be your pillow, soft and deep").
The most poignant showstopper, "Let It Sing," actually belongs not to Violet but her second new friend, Flick. That's the superb Joshua Henry as the black soldier who in that part of our country and at that time knows that the color of one's skin is as likely to repel as any disfigurement.
Musical theater veteran Alexander Gemignani is compelling as the father who caused the face scarring accident. His plaintive "That's What I Could Do" in which he wishes he could take away her scar is a heart breaker. The situation between Gemigani's father and young Violet (a fine Broadway debut by Emerson Steele) now seems like something of a precursor to Tesori's exploring such complex relationships in the more recent Fun Home.
The actors who are part of Violet's trip to Tulsa all handle multiple roles with aplomb. That includes Ben Davis who plays various bus drivers before turning into the healer Violet envisions as fulfilling her over-the-rainbow dream. In case you missed the similarity between Violet's quest and Dorothy's "off to see the wizard" road trip, there's no missing it once she finds her preacher to be as much of a sham as Frank Baum's Wizard. Fans of Turner Classic's golden oldies may also remember having seen a replay of The Enchanted Cottage, a beloved World War II era romance in which a horribly scarred veteran (Robert Young)and a homely maid (Dorothy McGuire) create their own private Eden in which both see each other as beautiful.
While the audience at the press preview I attended ate up the rousing gospel number "Down the Mountain," led by Rema Webb as Lula Buffington, I felt it pandered a bit too obviously to crowd pleasing and would have been just as enjoyable if not allowed to go on for quite so long.
The original Violet was considered a timely and unusual take on the obsession with beauty as well as our Vietnam involvement. While advancements in plastic surgery could no doubt fix Violet's scars, the obsession with movie star good looks has hardly become dated. Even sadder, while the Vietnam nightmare has ended, soldiers like Monty have given us new wars to put soldiers like like him in harm's way, sending many home with more severe disfigurments than Violet's scar.