Theater is ephemeral. It happens, and then it is over. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we get cast albums; if we're luckier, we get television broadcasts or DVD releases. But more often than not, theater disappears from the tangible reality in which we live, and it becomes, simply, a beautiful memory.
Such is the case with the glorious Encores! Off-Center one-night-only concert staging of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's rarely seen 1997 musical Violet, directed by Leigh Silverman on July 17 at New York City Center. This stunning, heartbreaking evening, starring Sutton Foster, Joshua Henry, and Van Hughes in the central roles, seems unlikely to have a future life, but it will certainly live on in the minds of all those who attended and cried their eyes out.
Inspired by Doris Bettis' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," Violet, which ran briefly at Playwrights Horizons and did spawn a cast recording, follows the titular young woman (Foster), badly scarred across her face by an axe, as she travels across the United States to be healed by a televangelist preacher (Christopher Sieber, in a number of roles). Along the way she falls for Monty (Hughes), a womanizing soldier, and gains the true affections of his army buddy Flick (Henry), a black man dealing with the still-present hostilities of the recently segregated country.
Silverman's script-in-hand production wisely kept the bells and whistles to a minimum (deploying them only once, toward the end, to excellent effect), letting the material sing for itself — which it did, with the first-rate, two-time Tony Award-winning Foster in the lead. It's no wonder why this actress is considered one of the leading musical theater actresses of our day, whether breaking our heart with a moment as small as a longing glance, or filling the scrappy Violet's journey with the kind of hopeless, naïve optimism that can only lead to a broken heart.
Foster was more-than-capably backed by a tremendous ten-member company. Henry brought down the house with the rousing "Let It Sing." Hughes nailed Monty's callousness. Sieber's genuine stage presence made him a natural for the role of the hard-edged evangelist revival preacher. Chris Sullivan impressed by stepping outside his comedic second-banana box to play young Violet's farmer father. Anastacia McCleskey, Keala Settle, Rema Webb, Paul Whitty, and Austin Lesch made for an excellent ensemble company. And Emerson Steele, who couldn't be older than a teenager, was a genuine revelation in her New York stage debut as Young Violet, going head to head with Foster, in the climactic "Look at Me."
Violet might have been Tesori's first musical, but there are no hints of juvenilia in her score, a countrified blend of gospel, bluegrass, blues, and good-old country itself. Using the original orchestrations by Joseph Joubert and the late Baptist composer Buryl Red, this music sounded better than ever, played by a nine-member band led by Tesori's frequent collaborator, Michael Rafter.
But back to the bells and whistles. They came in the form of the late-appearing, Harlem-based Songs of Solomon gospel choir, under the direction of Pastor Chantel Wright. Not only did these moments raise the roof, they nearly blew away all of 55th Street.