It’s no secret that the wonderful Sutton Foster is an effervescent talent, but I’m finally fully in her camp upon her latest Great White Way venture. I’ve read that critics are calling “Violet” a game-changer for Ms. Foster, and it’s certainly an atypical choice for the two-time Tony winner. Her performance as Violet Karl does not feature the peppiness that was sprinkled throughout her renowned performances in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the recent revival of “Anything Goes”(her Tony wins for the first and the last, and I saw “Millie” and “Chaperone” both, last decade.). And that’s what makes it such a revelation. Not only is Ms. Foster extraordinary in a role(her sixth Best Actress in a Musical Tony nomination)mostly devoid of her trademark amiability, but the stripped-down simplicity of the production itself is a tonic for spectacle-weary theatre goers in a season that brought us Disney’s “Aladdin” and a stage version of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”. “Violet” the musical, makes its Broadway debut on an uncluttered, subtly altered set, running 100 minutes long, with no intermission. And not only is it marvelously staged, with rousing, gospel-like numbers, and the full orchestra front-and-center throughout, but Sutton, exhibiting a dry wit and naive faith, manages to fascinate us, enthrall us, and keep the audience in her corner the entire hour and forty minutes. It’s the deepest and most provocative work I’ve witnessed her in yet.
It’s 1964, and Violet Karl(Ms. Foster as an adult, and Emerson Steele as a young girl)is embarking on a bus trip to Oklahoma to visit a televangelist, who has been demonstrating his powers of healing on T.V. for years. Violet is convinced that the preacher is the only one that can “cure” her of the facial scar she received in her youth after an accident involving an axe, while her now deceased father(seen in flashback form, portrayed by the fine veteran, Alexander Gemignani)was chopping wood. Violet makes the acquaintance of two young soldiers after one of the journey’s rest stops. The handsome player, Monty(a very effective Colin Donnell), and the thoughtful African-American, Flick(a super Joshua Henry, who’s received a Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony nom). Violet develops a friendship with both men, as they play cards, eat together and discuss their various dreams and adventures. In particular, Violet strikes a connection with Flick, as both are judged by their appearance in an often derogatory fashion: Violet in regards to people’s reactions to her prominent wound(something that’s only suggested in the show—Ms. Foster dons no make-up to convey this effect), and Flick for the color of his skin. And we feel protective of the hopeful Violet, realizing that no charlatan priest can rehabilitate her face, and that ultimately one, or both, of the military men may hurt her in some way, if romance of any kind enters the picture.
Besides the two Tony-nominated performances from Ms. Foster and Mr. Henry, there is Leigh Silverman’s sterling Best Direction of a Musical notice, and the show itself for Best Musical Revival—an honor it shares with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, two shows that first appeared off-Broadway in the late 1990’s, making their first appearance on the big stage in 2014. This is the finest musical theatre piece I’ve experienced since the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “Follies” in 2011, and I simply can’t gush enough about the exceptional Sutton Foster. The confidence that shines through her interpretation of this damaged, good-hearted, but somewhat bewildered young woman is palpable. It never intrudes upon Ms. Foster’s naturalism in the role, it just exudes the stellar professionalism of a Broadway giant at the top of her game. Fantastic musical numbers include, “On My Way”, “Let It Sing” and “Raise Me Up”, and a PS Classics cast recording is due to hit shelves on June the 3rd. And with a cast that includes noted stage performers like Annie Golden, Rema Webb and Ben Davis taking on multiple roles, this is an event not to be missed amongst the glut of March and April releases. It’s a barebones, but marvelously effective revival. It touched me and it stirred me, and I was unprepared for its power. Also, I’m indebted to the astute Simon Parris, of http://www.simonparrismaninchair.com, for his invaluable help in selection of my most recent Broadway outing. And if you desire a bountiful overview of the current New York theater scene(as well as a few operas!), you can’t do much better than visiting his sight as he comes off a fortnight visit to NYC from his Australian home base. You won’t be sorry. Methinks you’ll have few regrets if you choose to visit “Violet”, as well. It’s an unquestionable winner. This show rates a 9