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'Violet' - Sutton Foster Shines in a Dramatic Musical

Sutton Foster in Violet
(©Joan Marcus)

What a pleasure to find Tony Award winner Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Anything Goes) in a show where her formidable talents are put to a use other than propelling a lighter-than-air musical comedy. In Violet, which opened last night at Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, her soaring voice and the indomitable spirit that have been so in evidence for so many years serve a dramatic tale. It's a satisfying breakthrough for this fine actress.

With music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change and Fun Home) and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, the piece centers on Violet (Foster), a young woman who was disfigured as a child. She was watching her father wield an axe and was struck in the face when the blade dislodged from the haft. The result was a scar stretching across her right cheek and as the musical begins, she is preparing to take a bus trip form her rural hometown in North Carolina to Arkansas, where she hopes that a televangelist will heal her.

It's a journey that proves metaphorically, if not literally, transfiguring for her, thanks particularly to two soldiers whom she meets along the way, the superlatively handsome womanizer Monty (Colin Donnell) and Flick (Joshua Henry), an African-American who finds a kindred spirit in Violet. Crawley's ability to draw parallels between the different feelings of invisibility that this latter man and Violet share is particularly graceful.

Under the direction of Leigh Silverman, and featuring some gently integrated choreography by Jeffrey Page, the show unfolds within the confines of a sort of roadhouse, which can transform to a variety of locations, from the buses that Violet rides to the boarding house in Memphis where the trio spend a layover en route to their respective destinations to the studio from which the preacher broadcasts.

Silverman's staging doesn't entirely mask the longueurs of some sections of Crawley's book, particularly when the complicated relationship between Violet and the two guys becomes overly complicated, but it nevertheless elegantly glides through the American south and back and forth in time as Violet remembers the life she shared with her father (rendered with sensitive gruffness by Alexander Gemignani) as a girl (played by Emerson Steele).

Tesori 's fills the show not only with twangy toe-tapping country-western appropriate for the milieu, but also some deft R&B numbers, a little gospel, and even some early rock 'n' roll (the piece is after all set in 1964). And, throughout, Foster, with Donnell and Henry at her side primarily, traverses the score with power, and the production becomes particularly satisfying when she and these two men raise their voices together, where, as is her wont, Tesori can seamlessly blend two---theoretically conflicting---musical styles.

Further, as Foster's vocals ripple with sheer force, there's a wounded gentility to her entire performance that touches. The men match her work terrifically---note for note and nuance for nuance. Donnell imbues Monty with both preening arrogance and the vulnerability of a little boy. Henry's turn sparks with searing bitterness that's moderated with a shrewd level of fragility and need.

Fine performances come, too, from the multiply cast ensemble, particularly Annie Golden, who plays a both a priggish old woman whom Violet meets on the bus, and a drunken hooker who's prowling Memphis; and, as the preacher on whom Violet has pinned her hopes, Ben David delivers a performance of intriguing complexity. In David's hands, this character becomes something more than a snake oil salesman.

It's taken some seventeen years for Violet to reach Broadway (it premiered off-Broadway in 1997 at Playwrights Horizons and this incarnation was seen last summer as part of City Center's Encores! series). It's not only welcome as a musically complex entry in the 2013-2014 season, it's also splendid vehicle for Foster.

---- Andy Propst

Violet plays at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.