NEW YORK – There are many fine performances in the American theater at the moment, but for me, there are few perfect ones. Sutton Foster’s is perfect in the musical “Violet” at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street through August 10.
In “Violet,” with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, Ms. Foster shows off another aspect of her prodigious talent. Playing Violet, a North Carolina country woman based on Doris Betts’s short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” she is a woman with a physical problem. As a youngster, she was too close to her father as he chopped down a tree; and the head of the ax detached and landed close to her nose, gashing her cheek and permanently scarring her face.
Twelve years later, she is still suffering from the emotional trauma of the accident until she sees a televangelist preacher (Ben Davis), whose zealous talk about his healing feats makes Violet think he might be able to erase her scar.
In her bright print buttoned-down house dress and with suitcase in hand, she is on the next Greyhound bus to see this miracle man in Tulsa. The trip in a way heals Violet and shakes her out of her slough of fear. She meets a couple of new G. I. recruits, Monty (Colin Donnell) and Flick (Joshua Henry), headed for Fort Smith, both of whom become smitten with her. They take her out honky-tonk dancing. It’s 1964, and Flick, an Afro-American, teaches her about people’s differences and being an outsider in a wonderful, soulful song called, “Let It Sing.”
We never see Violet’s scar, but we learn about the incident through woven-in scenes that feature Alexander Gemignani as her father and a young Violet played by Emerson Steele.
It likely won’t come as a surprise that the preacher turns out to be a charlatan and Violet returns home with her scar. But she is a different woman.
When I first saw “Violet” in 1997 at Playwright’s Horizon, the show had not been brought into focus; it seemed less touching, less moving, less persuasive than it should have been. Then last summer, New York City Center’s Encores Off Center did a one-night revival with Leigh Silverman directing.
They reduced the show from two acts to a 90-minute intermissionless piece and added new songs and dances by Jeffrey Page. But the most important change was the re-orchestration of Ms. Tesori’s score by the three-man team of Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red, which added a true Blue Ridge Mountain feel to the evening. This sound of southern bluesy, jazzy, rock and roll and, of course, gospel, make “Violet” feel like a spanking new show. Added to this is a cast of young, talented musical performers and the ideal Violet in Ms. Foster, who has Southern roots herself and knows where this woman comes from.
In this uncommon musical, her performance glows in the simplicity of Violet’s story and surprises us with its heartfelt luminescence.
The theater’s website says that the final performance at 2 p.m. Aug. 10 will benefit Education at Roundabout. A portion of the ticket will be a tax-deductible contribution. Funds support Roundabout’s work this season serving over 6,000 young people with theater-based curricula, after-school workshops, and student matinees like “Violet.”
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.