NEW YORK (AP) — Some musicals are big and brassy, calling out for attention with their razzle-dazzle and sassy sets. Others are more demure, letting their simple beauty shine. How appropriate then that a show about inner loveliness chose the latter path.
"Violet," which opened Sunday at the American Airlines Theatre, makes a Broadway debut with just a few chairs, a simple bed, no big costume changes and a score so rich and sublime that you'll hardly notice anything is missing.
Sutton Foster stars as a young North Carolina woman in 1964, learning to let go of the scars of childhood in a story based on "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts. Accidentally maimed by her father as a teenager in an ax mishap, Violet years later goes on a cross-country bus trip hoping to have her damaged face healed by a televangelist.
It features music by Jeanine Tesori — the powerful force behind "Caroline, or Change" and "Fun Home" — and a book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. "Violet" was Tesori's first musical and it was mounted off-Broadway in 1997, becoming a bit of a cult hit. A concert version last year generated so much excitement that it has arrived on Broadway, with much of its stripped-down spirit still in its DNA.
"Violet" is a reminder — if we have already forgotten the power of "Once" — that a Broadway musical has to hit your heart as much as be visually pretty. A recent preview of "Violet" left some in the audience crying and smiling. And that's with a show that has actors simply bumping up and down on chairs to recreate a bus trip.
Tesori shows an astonishing range, from honky-tonk to gospel to classic Broadway showstoppers. Some of the standouts are the rousing "On My Way" and the tricky overlapping triangle of voices in "Promise Me, Violet." Tesori's melodies sometimes return to overlap with a new song, creating a beautiful tapestry. As in "Fun Home," her music seems to encourage ghosts — both sonic and narrative — to reappear.
Crawley's story is a little rushed, and while at times it sometimes seems to be veering into maudlin, he pulls out before danger. His Violet is a sharp-tongued, defensive woman who hides behind cynicism but seems to believe in miracles. Crawley may make you laugh when he has Violet dreaming up her new face by using movie star features: "Put Grace Kelly's little nose/With Rita Hayworth's skin/But Ava Gardner for the eyebrows."
A foot-stomping gospel number, "Raise Me Up," goes on a tad bit too long and seems ill-fitting, while the central love triangle resolves itself a little too conveniently. But these are mere tiny disfigurements to a show that deserves our full admiration.
Director Leigh Silverman has a sensitive, genuine touch and nicely navigates tough scenes when the staging gets complicated by multiple voices. (A poker scene in which young Violet and her dad harmonize with the adult Violet at another card table is pretty nifty.)
Of course, it helps when you've got someone like Foster, a natural triple-threat who this time doesn't dance at all. She has burrowed into the character so much that you can feel her flinch from unwanted attention. And when she digs even deeper for notes, she lets them soar like birds. (The creative team has avoided any makeup or mask to illustrate Violet's scar, a testament to Foster's acting ability.)
As great as Foster is, she has the good fortune of being the object of seduction from two of Broadway's hunkiest singers — her "Anything Goes" co-star Colin Donnell and "The Scottsboro Boys" star Joshua Henry, who proves once again to be one of the sweetest, strongest singers around. His "Let It Sing" is a true highlight.
It's not too hard to figure out that a show about a woman who thinks she's repulsive will ultimately deal with issues of beauty and the nature of love. It does, but it also explores guilt and belief, proving there's a lot you can do when you have great songs, wonderful singers and keep it simple.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits