It’s hard to imagine Sutton Foster as anything but an irrepressible cheerleader. She always plays the perky woman who wins the hero’s affections, all the while, singing and dancing and even doing cartwheels. (The Drowsy Chaperone, Anything Goes, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek.) She’s won the hearts of her audiences along with two Tony Awards.
The role of Violet in the revival of Jeanine Tesori’s musical Violet is a departure for the talented Ms. Foster. Violet is a dark character whose whole life has been scarred (literally) by an accident. As a child, she was disfigured when her father was chopping wood and the ax blade flew off. As with the play, The Elephant Man, the audience doesn’t see the character’s scar, only the reaction of people who encounter her. Foster wears no special make-up; in fact, she wears no makeup at all.
Years later, she leaves her childhood home to find a TV preacher who will perform a miracle and fix her face. (She sings a wistful, poignant song about the features she wants from famous movie actresses, reminding the audience that the story is set in the 1960s.) Violet tells the tale of her journey and the two soldiers, one black and one white, whom she meets on the bus traveling from Spruce Pine, NC to Tulsa, OK.
Based upon a story entitled “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, the tale, set in 1969, is especially significant because Monty (Colin Donnell) is part of the Army’s Special Forces due to be sent to Viet Nam. It also quietly reminds the audience of the segregation of the South, in the person of Flick (Joshua Henry) the other soldier she meets. The older woman next to her on the bus (Annie Golden from the original Hair) is gossipy and almost parental. Foster is wonderful, still spunky but resolute and strong. Joshua Henry is touching and his solo is especially moving. As usual, Alexander Gemignani does a fine job as her father.
Violet is about isolation and separation, yet the musical is quietly uplifting. Flick, as a black man, knows the isolation that Violet feels and is drawn to her.
Violet is a small, quiet and intimate musical. Yet it fills the American Airlines Theater and stage-a testimony to its power and stars’ talents.