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Aisle View: Sutton's Violet Triumphs

04/20/2014 09:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2014

This past season has been lackadaisical for new Broadway musicals, with the best of them--arguably After Midnight, Beautiful and A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, in alphabetical order--falling in the slightly-less-than-exhilarating class. The most exciting musicals of the last two years, by my calculation, have all been off-Broadway: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and two from the Public Theater, Here Lies Love and the extra-exceptional Fun Home. With the 2013-14 Broadway season ending, we have suddenly been favored with two better-than-good specimens: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill and Violet. Both, as it happens, were first seen in New York at off-Broadway non-profits last century, with neither making much of a stir at the time.

Lady Day, which opened at the Circle in the Square a week ago and is not the subject of today's discourse, features an exceptional performance by Audra McDonald. (Whether this is play or musical is open to interpretation, but the enterprise is in any event built on song.) Violet, which opened Sunday at the Roundabout, features an exceptional performance by Sutton Foster. Violet won the 1997 New York Drama Critics Circle Award, but it was unable to generate enough interest to transfer from Playwrights Horizons and quickly faded from the scene. It turns out to be a superior musical.

The informed theatergoer, walking into the American Airlines Theatre, might have a hint of what to expect. Composer Jeanine Tesori has since given us Caroline, or Change and the aforementioned Fun Home, along with other less-artistic, commercially-oriented pieces like Shrek. In 1997, though, Tesori was an untried newcomer and it was difficult to know just what to make of Violet's Southern-folk, Appalachian-flavored score--as had been the case with Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins, a country-folk Playwrights offering a year earlier which attracted great attention but was also unable to transfer.

Violet, based on the Doris Betts short story The Ugliest Pilgrim, is decidedly unusual. The twenty-five-year-old heroine (Foster) is on a pilgrimage from her home in rural North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is convinced that a television evangelist will make a miracle and heal her deformity. (At thirteen, an axe accidentally left a gruesome scar across her face.) Much of the action takes place on a Greyhound bus, with the outcast falling in with two soldiers. Monty (Colin Donnell, who played opposite Foster in Anything Goes) is the slick white soldier who smoothly flirts with the girl; Flick (Joshua Henry, of Scottsboro Boys) is the sensitive black soldier who might well be a better choice.

The show starts with a long, impressively-written musical sequence as Violet starts her journey. After a lunchroom scene--where both the unsightly Violet and the black Flick have trouble getting served by a redneck waiter--Tesori and lyricist/librettist Brian Crawley give us an intricate poker-game quintet. Actually two games, one in which cardshark Violet beats the soldiers, the other a flashback in which Young Violet (Emerson Steele) is taught the game by her father (Alexander Gemignani). The writing here quickly establishes that this is not some provincially-ethnic score but the real thing, so very good that one wonders how Violet could have been so overlooked for so long.

The score continues in this vein with a wide variety of song types for different configurations, all of them arresting. Standouts include Henry's rousing "Let It Sing"; a sweet lullaby from Foster, "Lay Down Your Head"; and the star's big final number, "Look at Me."

Central to the project is two-time Tony Award winner Foster, giving the finest performance we've thus far seen from her as the vulnerable but strong, straight-talking heroine. Foster goes way back with composer Tesori, having achieved overnight stardom in the 2002 Thoroughly Modern Millie. As artistic director of City Center's Encores! Off-Center series, Tesori seemingly strong-armed her own Violet into the rotation last summer even though Foster's scheduling allowed only a single performance. Any questions as to propriety disappeared in the first ten minutes, resulting in one of the indisputable stage highlights of 2013. This Roundabout revival is based on last summer's presentation, retaining the revised one-act version from Encores along with the performances of Foster, Henry and Steele.

If Foster is exceptional in the title role, she is strongly supported by Henry, Donnell and especially the teen-aged Steele. Director Leigh Silverman (Chinglish) enhances her Encores work, taking the show's built-in production concept--a bus consisting solely of chairs, the heroine's disfiguring deformity suggested only by the facial reactions of the other actors--and using them to great advantage. The nine-piece band and the strong chorus are firmly led by music director Michael Rafter, who has a long history with both Foster and Tesori.

Fun Home--Tesori's collaboration with Lisa Kron, which played a limited run last fall at the Public--is at present a strong candidate for the best musical of recent times. While waiting for that exuberant winner to find a new home and reopen, Broadway audiences in search of intriguing musical theatre are well advised to hop a bus over to Tesori and Crawley's Violet.

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Violet, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book & lyrics by Brian Crawley, opened April 20, 2014 at the American Airlines Theatre.