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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
VIOLET
at American Airlines Theater

SOUTHERN SCAR
By BERNARD CARRAGHER

  (L to R) Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell and Sutton Foster/ Ph: Joan Marcus

There are many fine performances in the American theater at the moment, but for me there are few perfect ones. Sutton Foster's – in the musical Violet at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street through Aug. 10 – is perfect. Foster is probably best known for her bright musical comedy prowess in shows like Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsey Chaperone and a handful of other minor efforts. A couple of years ago when she was in a revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, playing the sassy role of Reno Sweeney written for the legendary Ethel Merman, she redeemed the musical's knockout fervor.
 
In Violet, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, Foster shows off another aspect of her prodigious talent. Playing Violet, a North Carolina countrywoman derived from Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," she is a woman with a physical problem. As a youngster she unfortunately got too close watching her father chop down a tree, and the shim of the axe got loose and landed close to her nose and gashed her cheek, permanently scarring her face. 

Twelve years later she is still suffering from the emotional trauma of the accident until she sees a televangelist Preacher (Ben Davis), whose zealous talk about his healing feats makes Violet feel he might be able to erase her scar. In her red-print, button-down housedress with suitcase in hand, she is on the next Greyhound bus to see this miracle man in Tulsa. The trip in a way heals Violet and shakes her out of her slough of fear. She meets two new G. I. recruits headed for Fort Smith who both become smitten with her. Monty (Colin Donnell) and Flick (Joshua Henry) take her out honky-tonk dancing. Flick, an Afro-American in 1964, teaches her about people's differences and being an outsider in the wonderful soulful song "Let It Sing." We never seen Violet's scar, but we hear about it through her father (Alexander Gemignani) and a young Violet played by Emerson Steele. I don't think it will surprise you that the Preacher turns out to be a lively hoaxer and Violet returns home with her scar. But she is a different woman.
 

When I first saw Violet in 1997 at Playwright's Horizon the show had not been brought into clear focus. It seemed less touching, less moving, less persuasive than it should have been. Then last summer New York City Center's Encores Off Center did a one-night revival with Leigh Silverman directing. They reduced the show from two acts to a 90-minute intermission-less piece, and added new songs and dances by Jeffrey Page. But the most important change they did was to re-orchestrate Tesori's score with the three-man team of Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red, which gave a true Blue Ridge Mountain feel to the evening. This sound of southern blues, jazz, rock and roll, and gospel make Violet feel like a spanking new show. This is combined with a cast of young talented musical performers and the ideal Violet in Foster, who has Southern roots herself and knows where this woman comes from. In this uncommon musical, her performance glows in the simplicity of Violet's story and surprises us with its heartfelt luminescence.

 


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