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Theater Review: In Violet, an Unlovely Accident Yields a Lovely Musical

Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster, and Colin Donnell in Violet.

The disfigurement was an accident. The shim on her father’s hatchet came loose, the blade flew, and 13-year-old Violet, playing nearby, was forever left with a face “split in two.” Twelve years later — now parentless, friendless, and nearly hopeless — she makes a 900-mile bus pilgrimage from North Carolina to glittering Tulsa in search of a miracle. Can the TV evangelist she’s seen cure cancer also fix her face?

This may be the most unlikely premise a musical has ever offered, even in a field that includes vengeful barbers supplying cannibal pastries and anything by Frank Wildhorn. But the unlikeliness doesn’t end there. Loosely based on the Doris Betts novel The Loneliest Pilgrim, and originally produced off Broadway in 1997, Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet gently pushes this dour young woman, whose horrible scar is accompanied by a frown so severe it nearly meets at the bottom, into a delicate love triangle with two soldiers en route to Fort Smith. Oh, and one’s black. And it’s 1964.

But the most unlikely thing about Violet is that it makes of these outré elements, these horrible and troubling specificities, a work of great resonance and beauty and joy. (It’s also surprisingly sexy.) At its best, Violet is a rare example of how song can work to bind all the elements of theater — plot and theme and character and emotion — into moments so rich with information they are almost overwhelming. Let me pick one example among many: Early in her trip, Violet meets the two soldiers at a rest-stop diner, passing the time with a game of poker. She asks to join them; sensing an opportunity to clean up with the “ugly” girl, they agree. As she mistrustfully recuts the cards stage left, a memory is stirred, and we see, stage right, her father teaching her younger self to play:

First you set the ante,
Say a penny,
Then before the deal’s begun
We both ante up our pennies—
Not too many,
Just the one.

For Violet’s father, the lesson is an opportunity to get some math into the sad girl, who hates school because she is mercilessly teased there, and math in particular because it involves walking past nasty boys to get to the chalkboard. But learning the game, he also knows, will give her something to do with those boys, “when the time comes for that.” Which is what we see stage left. The melody is passed and elaborated, back and forth, among the five characters in two different times and a dozen different feelings: the father’s pleasure in having something to offer his daughter; her reluctant enjoyment of that; the soldiers’ bewildered interest in the strange woman who schneiders them; and the grown Violet’s emerging awareness that sadness, being somewhat random, may also be somewhat amenable to repair:      

Some say things happen by design
By demand, decree, or law.
I say most things fall in line
By the luck of the draw.

Tesori sets Crawley’s complicated poker scenario to a catchy banjo and fiddle tune befitting Violet’s mountain upbringing. But it’s not apt only because it sounds like the Blue Ridge Mountains; it’s also an indication, through the ineffable qualities of music alone, that something worth being hopeful about is happening. If your ears are open you know that it will involve these soldiers — whom the song has begun to distinguish from one another — and that it will involve Violet’s putting herself, regardless of her face, in the game.

So much of Violet succeeds in that way, welding various levels and modes of information in song. Violet yodels a number called “All to Pieces” that borrows Nashville tropes to anatomize the movie star looks she’d like to achieve. Flick, the black soldier, has a gospel-tinged barn-burner called “Let it Sing” that builds on the bones of an army basic-training chant to argue for self-sufficiency. (As performed by Joshua Henry, it brings the house down.) Of course, these elements were all in place in the original production and in last summer’s one-night Encores Off-Center concert. But for this Roundabout revival, the authors, working with the director Leigh Silverman, have made extensive revisions, including two new songs, many changes of dialogue and focus, and a briefer one-act format. (There are some key casting changes as well; Colin Donnell, as the white soldier, is terrific.) These changes sharpen and balance the story, sometimes clarifying points and sometimes, I felt, overclarifying them. On the other hand, the specificity of Silverman’s full but simple staging (one set; the bus represented by mismatched vinyl chairs) sometimes leaves you in a confusing no-man’s-land between abstraction and specificity.

But when it sings, Violet obviates such concerns. I don’t mean just when it melodizes. Crawley’s dialogue is as pungent and musical as his lyrics. And in Sutton Foster he and Tesori have found the ideal star. Foster has never been a vain actress, but here she seems to relish the opportunity to strip away everything inessential. (She has one costume, and it ain’t pretty.) All spunk erased from her delivery, she’s riveting in her portrayal of a woman who, despite everything, is ready to learn, from a black friend, about the thinness of skin. That’s a very American story, in contrast, say, to The Cripple of Inishmaan, in which the title character’s deformity particularizes the universal and irreversible ugliness of humanity. We’re never even shown Violet’s disfigurement — which, by the end, is the only thing wrong with her. 

 Violet is at the American Airlines Theatre through August 10.

*This article appears in the May 5, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Joan MArcus