Before she wrote the songs for the astonishing “Fun Home” or collaborated with Tony Kushner on the extraordinary “Caroline, Or Change,” Jeanine Tesori wrote the music for “Violet,” her first musical. It debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 1997, telling the story of woman with a big scar on her face who takes a bus ride in 1964 from her rural home in North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek out a televangelist whom she naively expects to heal her.
“Violet” was one of the musicals chosen for the inaugural season last summer of the Encores Off-Center program at City Center, whose artistic director is Jeanine Tesori. (You always remember your first.) Starring Sutton Foster in the title role, “Violet” ran for one night and got good reviews. Now that same production, helmed again by Leigh Silverman and with much the same cast, has been brought to Broadway.
Adapted from Doris Betts’s short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” Jeanine Tesori and book writer and lyricist Brian Crawley fill “Violet” with almost two dozen songs, a busload of characters — most notably two soldiers (Colin Donnell and Joshua Henry) who improbably both fall for Violet — and a series of flashbacks that feature a Young Violet (Emerson Steele) and her father (Alexander Gemignani.) It was her father who disfigured Violet’s face because of an accident with an ax when Violet was 13. (The wound is not depicted; we imagine it, helped along by the reactions by the other characters.) Now Violet dreams of her new beauty:
Borrow Elke Sommers’ hair
And Judy Garland’s pretty chin
Put Grace Kelly’s little nose
With Rita Hayworth’s skin
But Ava Gardner for the eyebrows
Under gypsy eyes
What’s on stage of the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater is a deliberately modest production. The set, meant to represent a bus station, looks more like a high school auditorium. Most of the time the characters sit on chairs meant to represent the bus. The action takes place over one long one act in place of its original two. Tesori’s score is a pleasing if unremarkable mix of gospel, blues and bluegrass. We are treated to a reliably good performance by Sutton Foster and an outstanding vocal performance by Joshua Henry as the black soldier she meets on the bus. (Henry, who was also amazing in The Scottsboro Show, deserves to be better known — and will be soon.)
Such a show I would surely enthusiastically recommend — had I not been so much more awed by Tesori’s subsequent work; were the top ticket price for “Violet” at this non-profit venue not $152; were the themes of the musical not so obvious (beauty and uplift come from within); and were “Violet” opening at any time when there were not so many other shows fresher, deeper or more exciting.
At the Roundabout Theater Company’s American Airlines Theater
Based on the City Center Encores! Off-Center concert production; music by Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts; directed by Leigh Silverman; choreography by Jeffrey Page; music direction by Michael Rafter; sets by David Zinn; costumes by Clint Ramos; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Leon Rothenberg; orchestrations by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press
Cast: Sutton Foster (Violet), Colin Donnell (Monty), Alexander Gemignani (Father), Joshua Henry (Flick), Ben Davis (Preacher/Radio Singer/Bus Driver 1/Bus Driver 4), Annie Golden (Old Lady/Hotel Hooker), Emerson Steele (Young Violet), Austin Lesch (Virgil/Billy Dean/Bus Driver 2/Radio Singer/Bus Passenger), Anastacia McCleskey (Music Hall Singer/Bus Passenger), Charlie Pollock (Leroy Evans/Radio Soloist/Bus Driver 3/Bus Passenger) and Rema Webb (Lula Buffington/Almeta/Bus Passenger)
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $62 to $152
Violet is scheduled to run through August 10, 2014