Sutton Foster solidifies herself as one of musical theatre’s most valuable assets in Roundabout Theater Company’s new Broadway production of Violet. Based on Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim”, it was originally staged Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in 1997. Last year, the Encores! series remounted a concert staging at the New York City Center with Foster in the title role of Violet. It received rave reviews and Roundabout quickly added it to their season after a last-minute postponement of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. I suppose they wanted to delay the presumably inevitable theatrical equivalent of watching paint dry. But fear not, erudite theater goers! You’ll have your opportunity for high brow British intellect in the fall when Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Cynthia Nixon revisit Stoppard’s treatment of melancholy matrimony.
But this review is not about my indifference towards Tom Stoppard. Let’s get back to Sutton Foster. This two-time Tony award winner has earned yet another Tony nod as she continues to win over audiences in this simple and beautiful musical by Brian Crawley (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (Music).
Violet tells the story a young disfigured girl who embarks on a journey from her southern home to the midwest. Desperate, she searches for a spiritual healing from a snake oil televangelist . It opens with both Violet’s older self and younger self and we soon learn (via a flashback) what has caused the disfigurement. While playing in the barn, she gets too close to her father’s woodpile. Her father (Alexander Gemignani) is chopping wood and the ax handle flies off, hitting his daughter in the face. Although they seek medical assistance, it is from a shoddy doctor and Violet is left with a permanent scar that renders her permanently marked for life. During her trek, she meets two marines, Flick (Joshua Henry) and Monty (Colin Donnell), both of whom offer invaluable life lessons into the burden she bears. Eventually, she comes face to face with the Preacher (Ben Davis), a personality she has only known through a television screen. With eager anticipation, she quickly realizes that his healing powers are nothing short of hocus pocus and flim flam .
Foster has an innate ability for layered performances. With her youthful, versatile looks, She can do “sweet girl next door”, or she can portray the commanding “no-nonsense straight shooter”. Here she gives us both in a beautiful soul clinging to hope and committed to success. Her voice is in top form and Jeanie Tesori’s country twinged score lends itself well to Foster’s effortless vocal chops.
Speaking of vocal chops, let us not overlook Joshua Henry and Rema Webb, both of whom, in their individual rousing gospel numbers, are strengthening the faith of existing believers and offering proof to the skeptics. Henry (Flick), delivers a show stopping statement of confidence and independence to Violet in “Let It Sing”. Later, Webb (Lula Buffington), gives every ounce of soul she has in the stirring and inspired “Raise Me Up”. She ends it with an air of insistent sass. Lula is quick to remind the preacher, “I’m Singin’ for the Lord. Not for You. For the Lord!” Amen, sister! Lucky for us, we get to watch and listen to both of these powerful performances.
Heartwarming though it is, Violet could benefit from a trim. With no intermission, the nearly two-hour show suffers a few sluggish moments. Some of the flashbacks are a bit incoherent and not all of the songs are essential to moving this trip along. Still, it is a crucial reminder that our obsession with nips, tucks, Botox, and plastic surgery mean nothing if our emotional priorities are not in check.
Violet is now playing on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd street between 7th and 8th avenues. For tickets, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org, call 212.719.1300 or visit the box office.