REVIEW: Violet, American Airlines Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Last Updated on 17th October 2014

Violet on Broadway
Photo: Joan Marcus

American Airlines Theatre
10 April 2014
5 Stars

At their very best, Musicals can do many things. They can shine a light on a particular time or a particular person, help you understand a culture, philosophy or time of change, induce life-affirming hilarity or just make you want to dance. Sometimes, rarely it has to be said, a musical can inspire understanding about some of the fundamental lessons of life. Next to Normal was a recent example of such a musical.

So too is Violet, now playing at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, a powerful, quite remarkable work with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and a rousing, evocative and thrilling score from Jeanine Tesori.

It’s a simple enough story. As a small girl, Violet was hit in the face with an axe-head and since then has lived life with a huge scar. Well, two scars: the physical reminder of the axe striking her face and the emotional scar, the deeply set and held belief that she is not beautiful, can’t be loved, will always be unwanted. Strong willed, determined and self-contained, Violet takes great comfort from faith and, as the musical starts, is about to take a bus trip across the country to visit a television faith healer to be cured of her physical scar. The journey proves unexpected in every way. At the end, Violet has been transformed in her own mind.

Any rational person who sees this superb production, insightfully and decisively directed by Leigh Silverman, should be moved, enlightened and challenged by the experience. It’s provocative and heart-warming in equal measure. A true delight.

The book is spare, pungent, witty and chock full of understanding about the fragility and demands of the individual human psyche, about the horror of peer judgment and the many ways in which each of us can be cruel, intentionally or otherwise, in daily interactions. The score matches the book with a series of wonderful, intensely passionate melodies and anthems, wrapping and charting Violet’s journey in a lather of glorious sound and vocal insight.

Spot on casting assists the piece soar.

Sutton Foster has never been better than she is here, and she has been magnificent in other, lighter work. She plays Violet unflinchingly, raw, vicious and desperate. She wears no make-up, so the scar is entirely imagined, but Foster’s precise, detailed and singularly intense performance lets you see the scar as she sees it: which is certainly more horrific than it would ever have been in physical form.

This is demonstrated in a shockingly beautiful way in the moments when Violet returns to the bus stop, convinced that she has been cured. Foster’s entire body, but especially her face and eyes, radiate confidence, assurance – beauty. Then, when Colin Donnell’s Monty shatters her by telling her that she has not, in fact, been cured, Violet’s spirit implodes before our eyes, the haunted, diminished, crumpled desolate waif resuming control. It’s a phenomenal moment of superb acting – truthful, devastating and alarming in its effect.

But so is her entire performance. Not afraid of the darkest corners of the character, Foster shows all of the shades of Violet, from bleak to bliss. The woman who beats her for the Tony Award this season will need to be inhumanly good.

Like all great performances, Foster is given immaculate support and energy from a series of integral and complementary performances from the rest of the cast.

As Monty, the impossibly handsome, impossibly arrogant, impossibly sexy, impossibly shallow and impossibly self-centred soldier Violet meets on her bus trip, Colin Donnell is exceptionally good. He redefines Ugly. It’s a wonderful performance, full of seductive nuance and unspoken self-loathing. And the final scene between he and Foster is dynamite.

Alexander Gemignani is marvellous as Violet’s plain, backwoods father, a simple man haunted by the loss of his wife and how he reacted to his daughter’s injury. He lets you see Violet as he does – a shattered reflection of the image of his dead wife. It is a delicate but entirely believable performance, spiced with tenderness and a father ‘s determination to protect and shield. He is heartbreaking in “That’s What I Could Do”.

Annie Golden is fabulous as (first) the old lady who meets Violet on the bus and who is the first to experience Violet’s less than desirable side. She is perfect in her portrait of plain ordinary “rightness”. Then she appears as the Hotel Hooker in the scenes in Memphis where she is bedraggled, beyond desperate, drugged and staggeringly (in every sense) good. Magical to watch.

However, the performance of the evening comes from Joshua Henry. His Flick, the hard-working black superior officer buddy to Monty, is flawless. And, in his extraordinary solo, Let It Sing, he is show-stopping. The final redemptive moments, for Flick and Violet, work extraordinarily well. He underplays much of the emotional side of the character to great effect. It would be easy for a less gifted actor to make too much of the parallels between Flick’s perception of the beauty of his skin and Violet’s perception of hers, but Henry strikes the right note every time. It is possible to see how he has been Monty’s friend but despised him at the same time. Again, he will be nigh impossible to beat for a Tony Award.

One of the great gifts here is that it is often impossible to differentiate between the music and the speech. The songs are a seamless part of the narrative and there is musicality in every aspect of the scene work. It’s the realisation of harmony between text and score.

The ensemble is small but exceptional. The orchestra led by Mark Rafter is dynamic and thrilling. Mark Barton’s clever mood-creating lighting effectively transforms David Zinn’s minimalist set and together they evoke the ambience and sense of the mid-Sixties perfectly.

A perfect gem of a musical, hewn from truth and pain and polished by creatives and artists with magnificent skill. Unforgettable.

Do anything to see it.

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