One of the most unforgettable nights of theater in recent memory was on July 17, 2013, when Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's beautiful off-Broadway musical Violet was revived for one night only at New York City Center. With Sutton Foster in the title role, the concert performance, directed by Leigh Silverman, breathed new life into a show that already had an ardent fan base, large enough to sell out the entire venue. We were resigned to the fact that we'd probably never see it again, but miracles have a funny way of happening in the theater.
In a bold move, Roundabout Theatre Company has chosen to transfer Silverman's revival, with Foster still in the lead, to Broadway's American Airlines Theatre. Everyone who missed that evening in July now has the chance to see for themselves. So why does this Violet feel so different than it did nine months ago?
It's certainly not because of the performances. Foster and her Broadway-veteran costars do some of their finest work in this adaptation of Doris Betts' short story The Ugliest Pilgrim. Following that piece faithfully, Tesori and Crawley present the tale of a young woman and her quest for beauty. At 13, the titular Violet (Foster, with Emerson Steele as her younger self) was badly scarred after an accident involving her father (Alexander Gemignani) and an ax blade. The musical charts the now-grown Violet's 1964 journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma as she seeks healing from a televangelist preacher (Ben Crawford).
What Violet really hopes to gain, however, is a physical attractiveness she never had. "I'd like a pair of Gene Tierney eyes and Ava Gardner's eyebrows," she sings to Monty (Colin Donnell) and Flick (Joshua Henry), a pair of soldiers she meets at a bus station and quickly befriends. The men take an instant liking to the damaged Violet: The womanizing Monty sees an easy target, while Flick, a black man still dealing with the still-present hostilities of a newly desegregated country, sees a kindred spirit.
Knowing Foster's adeptness at playing musical comedy, it's refreshing to see her take on a rare dramatic turn. One of the great leading ladies of her day, she's even better than she was last summer, filling the scrappy yet damaged Violet with the kind of hopeless optimism that can only lead to heartbreak. In a nondescript orange jumper designed by Clint Ramos, Foster's Violet is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever stared in the mirror and wished they looked different. Foster is evenly matched by her leading men. Donnell provides Monty with a conscience buried deep within his outer callowness. The soulful Henry, who reprises his role from the City Center staging, once again raises the roof with the joyous "Let It Sing." Crawford brings the right amount of darkness to the evangelist revival preacher, and Gemignani is an old softy as Violet's pop. Annie Golden adds salty, humorous touches to a variety of ensemble roles.
Still most impressive, though, is the 13-year-old Steele as Young Violet, who is as much a revelation in her Broadway debut as she was last summer. Looking and sounding just like Foster, the young actress more than holds her own; together they expertly chart the growth of Violet from child to adult. Neither of them has a scar on her face (though at points, you feel you can see one). It's a polarizing choice on Silverman's part, but one that greatly adds to the central thesis question, "How is beauty defined?"
The onstage band of nine musicians, led by Michael Rafter, presents with great alacrity Tesori's varied score, a mixture of American folk music, gospel, and blues. Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red's stirring orchestrations are given a very careful, loving treatment. Crawley's book and lyrics are delicately presented by a cast that ensures every word counts.
What's missing from Silverman's full production, though, is the electricity it had on that one hot night last summer. The Broadway version feels listless; when playing the book scenes, and even during some of the songs, the actors spend their time seated on red diner chairs that are part of David Zinn's abstract, rundown barn-meets-bus-station set. The stillness this creates allows the material and performances to rightfully take center stage, but it also makes for a very static evening.
Still, it is wonderful to see this tale told once again. Despite missing the crucial jolt of energy, Violet is eminently worthy of its position on Broadway, and with Foster giving her deepest performance to date, it would be foolish not to experience this rediscovered gem.