We can complain all we want about star casting, but the fact remains that it works. Not always, of course, as the producers of the recently canceled mega-tour of Jesus Christ Superstar discovered. But we can thank star casting for at least three musical revivals this season on Broadway: Cabaret (Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Neil Patrick Harris), and Violet (Sutton Foster).
Of course, another key factor in bringing such potentially challenging fare to Broadway is the numerous nonprofit theaters that operate regularly within its confines, including the Roundabout Theatre Company, which is responsible for bringing both Violet and Cabaret to the Main Stem this season.
One might argue that Cabaret would sell regardless of any nonprofit sponsorship or star presence. But I can't imagine we'd have seen either Violet or Hedwig this season were it not for the nonprofit/star combo for the former, or the megastar factor for the latter. From where I sit, this is all for the good, because all three of these productions are outstanding in their own ways. (See my Hedwig review here. I'll be reviewing Cabaret in my next post.)
I saw Violet last July at City Center as part of the Encores! Off-Center Series, and was instantly reminded both of my admiration for the piece itself and of my ardent appreciation of the numerous and varied charms of Sutton Foster. Violet is based on the short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, and relates the story of a young woman who was horribly disfigured as a child (her father accidentally struck her in the face with an axe) and her journey to meet up with a faith-healing preacher in the hope of healing the wound.
Violet frequently makes an appearance when my students write their "Most Underrated Musical" papers, and I have always been apt to agree with that designation. The score, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Brian Crawley, is an outstanding mix of idiomatic bluegrass, revelatory character numbers, and complex musical sequences that provide a wealth of dramatic information in an entertaining and efficient fashion.
My personal favorite among these sequences is "The Luck of the Draw," a remarkable song that joins past (as Violet's father teaches her to play poker) and present (as Violet demonstrates her skill to her male traveling companions) in a way that amply illuminates both. Tesori and Crawley also make stunningly effective use of leitmotif, particularly in "Look at Me," which includes a climactic callback to Violet's quite literal wanting song, "All to Pieces." It's a stirring juxtaposition of the moment we understand the depth of her desire and the moment she discovers that she's not going to get it.
This has really been a great year for Jeanine Tesori, what with a Broadway resurrection of Violet and an acclaimed and extended run of her absolutely shattering Fun Home at the Public. Tesori's career thus far has been a fairly startling mix of the ambitious (Violet, Caroline or Change, Fun Home) and the populist (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek). I've defended Tesori's blatant attempts at making some money on numerous occasions, and my defense essentially comes down to this: people need to make a living. And if doing shows like Shrek and Millie gives Tesori the financial wherewithal to produce more challenging works, then I say let the woman make some money already.
Brian Crawley's book for Violet was revised for the Encores! concert, and shortened considerably from two acts to one. The script for the Broadway production restores some of the cut material, but the Broadway version feels less urgent, and the production goes on for about 15 minutes longer than is probably wise. Particularly quizzical is a restored dream sequence for Violet that includes some rather inscrutable business with three singing cowboys and some uncharacteristically awkward staging. Still, the show remains strong, particularly in crafting complex portraits of three edgy, layered, and believable characters: Violet and her two traveling companions, Flick and Monty.
Sutton Foster remains one of my favorite Broadway actors currently working. Foster is remarkably appealing in whatever she does, and that appeal comes in handy for her performance as Violet, given the character's frayed edges and defensiveness. I know there are some Sutton haters out there, but I've enjoyed every performance I've seen her in, even if the show itself wasn't worthy of her talents (Young Frankenstein? Blech.)
Alongside Foster are and intense and bright-eyed Joshua Henry as Flick and Colin Donnell as Monty. I've seen productions of Violet in which Monty sort of fades into the woodwork, but Donnell puts his own charming and distinctive spin on a character that could potentially come off as callous. No doubt much of these nuances are the work of director Leigh Silverman, who crafts a heartfelt and dynamic production, with able assistance from rising directorial star and Boston Conservatory graduate Ilana Ransom Toeplitz. (Full disclosure: Ilana is one of my former students, so you'll forgive me if I gush.)
Violet is currently scheduled to play through August 10th. The Roundabout has two shows scheduled to follow Violet in the American Airlines Theatre (The Real Thing and On the 20th Century), so there doesn't seem to be much likelihood of an extension. So, check it out. I think you'll be glad you made the journey.