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A CurtainUp Review

Two kinds of people in this world,
Some say yes and some say no
Time to say what side you're on;
Eeny meeny miny mo
— Flick "Let It Sing"
Sutton Foster (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's been quite a journey for Doris Betts's Violet Karl of Spruce Pine, North Carolina. The story of the badly scarred girl whose bus trip to Oklahoma, first saw life as "The Ugliest Pilgrim" in Betts's 1973 collection Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories. In 1981 Violet's "pilgrimage" with its healing-by-homily theme (beauty is only skin deep) before it moved from stage to screen. It took another sixteen years for Violet and her follow bus passengers to make a page-to-stage transition as a musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeannie Tesori.

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.

Music by Jeanine Tesori with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley
Based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim" a short story by Doris Betts
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Sutton Foster(Violet), Emerson Steele (Young Violet), Joshua Henry (Flick), Colin Donnell (Monty),Alexander Gemignani (Father), Annie Golden (Old Lady, Hotel Hooker), Charlie Pollock (Leroy Evans/Radio Soloist/Bus Driver 3/Bus Passenger),Ben Davis (Preacher, Radio Singer/Bus Driver 1/Bus Driver 4), Anastacia McCleskey (Music Hall Singer/Bus Passenger), Austin Lesh (Virgil/Billy Dean/Bus Driver 2/Radio Singer/Bus Passenger), Rema Webb (Lula Buffington/Almeta/Buss Passenger) As of 7/01 Levi Kreis will take over from Ben Davis as the Preacher, etc.. Sets: David Zinn
Costumes: Clint Ramos
Lights: Mark Barton
Sound: Leon Rothenberg
Original Orchestrations: Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red
Music Director: Michael Rafter
Orchestration: Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, Buryl Red
Musical Coordinator: Seymore Red Press
Hair and Wig Design: Charles G. LaPointe
Dialet Coach: Kate Wilson

Stage Manager: Kristen Harris
Broadway revival based on the New York City Center Encores! Off-Center concert production
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission
Roundabout at American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street)
From 3/28/14; opening 4/20/14; closing 8/10/14.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Musical Numbers
Water in the Well / Violet, Young Violet and Father
  • Surprised / Violet
  • On My Way /Violet and Company
  • M&Ms /Company
  • Luck of the Draw /Father, Young Violet, Violet, Monty and Flick
  • Question 'n Answer/ Monty and Violet
  • All to Pieces / Violet, Monty and Flick
  • Let It Sing /Flick
  • Anyone Would Do /Hotel Hooker
  • Who'll Be the One (If Not Me) / Radio Trio
  • Last Time I Came to Memphis /Monty and Violet
  • Lonely Stranger /Music Hall Singer
  • Lay Down Your Head / Violet
  • Anyone Would Do (Reprise) /Music Hall Singer, Almeta and Hotel Hooker
  • Hard to Say Goodbye /Violet and Flick
  • Promise Me, Violet / Violet, Monty and Flick
  • Raise Me Up /Preacher, Lula Buffington and Choir
  • Down the Mountain /Violet, Young Violet, Father and Virgil
  • Look at Me /Violet
  • That's What/I Could Do Father
  • Surprised (Reprise) /Violet
  • Promise Me, Violet (Reprise) /Flick and Violet
  • Bring Me to Light Company
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