Saturday, May 24, 2014

Violet: An Unusual Bus Ride

It's safe to say, Violet brings the high spirits of the Lord to the American Airlines theater, I just find myself immune to its power. The inventive musical pastiche with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley cuts against all my preferred musical inclinations with an emphasis on blues, gospel, and bluegrass. What can I say, I'm a New England folk girl. But Leigh Silverman's production is a stunner and if you like any of those musical forms and/or Sutton Foster it won't disappoint on those fronts.

Violet (Sutton Foster) was disfigured by her father's axe (Alexander Gemignani) by accident as a child and has had to live with a face most people find hard to look at. She sets out to be healed by a televangelist (Ben Davis) and made pretty. On her bus journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma she meets two servicemen, Monty (Colin Donnell) who is white and Flick (Joshua Henry) who is black. This is 1964, the South,and America is on the brink of war--both abroad and at home.  Through flashbacks and her trip to Oklahoma we learn of Violet's past and the visions that she carries with her in her head.

I struggled with this work when I first saw it last summer at Encores!  There was something that bothered me about a woman's journey which was fixated on her looks. Of course there is more to Violet's pain and more that needs to be healed but on the surface this obsession with her appearance carries much of the story. The deeper layer, where Violet wants to understand her father and the accident, wants to be looked at and feel less alone somehow gets muddled. It's there, it just keeps taking a backseat to the vanity overlay. 

There are also frustrating contradictions in Violet's character--at times she's whip smart, sassy, and sarcastic, at other times she comes off as foolish and dreamy.  In a 105 minute, intermission-less show it might be hard to smooth the angles between those aspects of her character.  If you have a warm spot in your heart for the music and cast I imagine these things would not stand out.  But as someone who was wrestling with the material to begin with I continued to get distracted.

That said this is an A+ cast. Colin Donnell was a new addition to the cast (Van Hughes played the role at Encores!).  And he's a charmer--walking the delicate line between romantic interest and asshole.   After his turn as Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along I've seen him make a somewhat unlikeable character palatable and he does it again here.  His struggles to embrace Violet and reject Violet are all there flashing across his face.  I wasn't sure if it was him taking his shirt off or getting into Violet's bed that caused audible shock in the audience. LEGITIMATELY.  Josh Henry burns down the house with the bluesy song Let It Sing. Henry too is irresistible--trying to make his feelings known to Violet but dealing with racism in the process.  Sutton does what Sutton does--she smiles, she sings, and everything melts around her. It's like musical theater kryptonite. You can't resist it, so don't.  In addition, Ben Davis as the televangelist makes the most of his few scenes as the slick preacher and Alexander Gemignani is utterly beguiling when Violet confronts the ghost of her father.  I forgot until that moment how much I had loved his work in Assassins and that scene--with its emotional wallop brought that all back to me.

David Zinn's vintage 1960's bus station and minimalist set gave the flexibility to move through time and Leigh Silverman kept the haunting memories of Violet's past ever present through the direction. 

This musical is truly unique.  I hate to be so negative on something that was trying to be so many things.  Jeanine Tesori's score is fascinating as each musical form represents different characters, places, and times, but I just wish it was an experiment in things I enjoyed more.  Just not one for me, but I know I'm truly in the minority here.  

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