Thursday, May 15, 2014


Few people look directly at Violet (Sutton Foster), and those who do tend to react in unsettling, unsubtle ways. Badly scarred as a child by an axehead that flew off its handle, Violet has grown as used to carefully averted eyes as she has to taunts and lightning-fast reactions that reflect pity or disgust. The ugly, jagged scar the accident left on her face matches the emotional scarring she has subsequently sustained. At 25, Violet is sad about or angry at just about everything: at her mother for dying and leaving her and her father (Alexander Gemignani) alone in their poor, rural, southern home; at her doting father, who was using the offending axe and who, like Violet, can't forgive himself; at the people she meets who mock her openly; at the people she meets who attempt to be kind.

After a lifetime of wishing the scar away, Violet is damaged and desperate and, despite her cynicism, prone to magical thinking. Hence her decision to take herself and a lot of money on a Greyhound bus all the way to Tulsa to seek out a televangelist she's convinced herself can heal her. On her pilgrimage, Violet meets two servicemen: Monty (Colin Donnell), a white, womanizing partyboy, and Flick (Joshua Henry), an African-American reform-school survivor who wants to make as much of his adult life as he can. This won't be easy, of course: Violet is set in the deep south in 1964. While no longer relegated to the back of the bus, Flick is nevertheless made endlessly aware of the fact that his future won't be as free or as easy as Monty's. Like Violet, he's grown as used to not being looked at as he has to being looked at but not really seen.
As they travel together, Violet, Monty, and Flick befriend one another, bonding in a not-always-comfortable trifecta. Their relationships, which don't come immediately, are not always easy: they put up walls, lash out at each other, joke a little too harshly, offend one another both purposely and accidentally. But ultimately, they make real, lasting connections with one another, which result in personal growth and the kind of genuine transformation that even the most convincing televangelist could only dream about.

This plot might strike you as a little too easy--in a pat, shiny, musical theater sort of way, even--and I won't argue with you on that. Violet is, especially in its plot development, as flawed as its title character perceives her face to be. Its ending feels rushed, its resolutions a little too tidy. The show's bigger themes--race, religion, perceptions of beauty, the power of magical thinking--aren't delved into as deeply as I was hoping for. But I don't care in the end, since the pleasures of the show, at least for me, outweigh its problems.

In the first place, it's beautifully directed (by Leigh Silverman) and performed by a small, very busy cast. I'd say that Sutton Foster is a standout, but that word doesn't quite work for the part she plays. Bitter, hardened, and painfully self-aware, Violet lends new depth to the term "shrinking violet." Foster--whom I've seen make mincemeat of big, brassy, shiny roles--has sunken admirably into this plain, blunt, awkward character. The supporting cast could easily slip, at any moment, into stereotype--the show, after all, depicts a time and place that has resulted in some pretty bad accents and some pretty bad depictions over the years. But no one takes cheap shots with their characters--not the churchy southern lady Violet meets on the bus (played by the always wonderful Annie Golden); not the wary, weary proprietess of the predominantly black boarding house Flick brings Violet and Monty to (Rema Webb); and, most surprisingly, not the televangelist (Ben Davis), whose revival act manages to seem both utterly ridiculous and seductive enough to make you understand why people give guys like him all their money. Donnell and Henry are both great as Monty and Flick, though the real standout is Henry, whom I'd never seen before, and who has the exceptionally rare talent for making it seem like he's connecting directly, at every single moment, with every single spectator in the house.

In the second place--a very big second place--there is Jeanine Tesori, who is officially my favorite contemporary musical theater composer, and whose music I only continue to be fascinated by. I raved some months back on this blog about her score for Fun Home, and I am also a huge fan of Caroline, or Change (which is comparable to this show both thematically and dramaturgically). This score is her first--Violet was initially produced Off Broadway in 1997 after three years of development. And throughout the show, I found myself thinking of ways that this brilliant composer has matured. But just as frequently, I simply delighted in her take on American roots music, which Violet offers in droves.

Tesori's music never ceases to surprise me, in large part because she is so good at reflecting ever-shifting states of mind in her scores. Her score for Violet is somewhat more obvious than her later ones in this respect, but no less interesting. I was particularly struck with her penchant for harmonies that slide gradually from almost-painful dissonance into warm, shimmering consonance. In this score, even more than in her later ones, simple, repetitive song structures--rooted here, of course, in American folk: game songs, blues, hollers, lullabies, hymns--give way to twisty, turny, multi-tentacled forms that never end up where you think they will. Whether purposely or not, Tesori has become expert at musical depictions of broken if well-meaning people, and the flawed but profound connections they make with one another--and thus, I guess, of sonic depictions of just about everyone. While it's kind of a bummer to ponder just how many damaged people and flawed relationships there are in the world, I take comfort in the fact that as a result, Tesori doesn't stand to run out of interesting characters to compose for--and thus perhaps, to attempt to heal--anytime soon. 

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