Review: Violet

A few weeks ago a friend proclaimed Jeanine Tesori as the best composer currently writing for the musical theater. I was surprised to hear her say that so baldly (and I instantly started quibbling with her), though I don’t know why, because I tend to think her scores are delightful.

Beginning, of course, with Violet, which I saw in revival Sunday at the American Airlines theater. If you aren’t familiar with the story: a girl named Violet (Sutton Foster) goes on a bus trip from North Carolina to Tulsa, where she hopes a televangelist faith healer will heal her scarred face. It doesn’t sound like much, and it really isn’t. But what catapults this musical beyond its slight storyline is all that gorgeous music. I’ve listened to the cast recording many times since I originally bought it back in college, but hearing it live in the theater really brought home what an accomplished and impressive piece of work Violet is. Take “On My Way”, the first big number, which manages to transform a few people on a bus to a chorus of faith and hope and yearning. And “Bring Me to Light” — that rare closing number which surpasses every other number that has come before it. (And THAT is saying something!)

But enough about the score, right? We all know the score! How’s the production?

It’s excellent. It retains that Encores feel, though I suppose any show with an orchestra onstage has an Encores feel to me. I only watched a few episodes of Bunheads, but what I did see proved that Sutton Foster showed herself to have a great feel for snarky dialogue. Her Violet is sarcastic and sulky but likable and funny enough to explain why the two soldiers she meets seem so fond of her. (Her accent is also less irritatingly twangy than Lauren Ward’s on the original cd — I may buy this cast recording for that reason alone.) As usual, Violet’s scarred face is left completely to the imagination: No garish makeup at all. I would love to see an actress who’s not gorgeous take on the role, but I suppose that’s asking too much. Joshua Henry (Flick) continues to be terrific in just about everything he does — the audience was so excited by the end of his big number (“Let it Sing”) that the ovations started before he even stopped singing. And Colin Donnell (Monty) is also charming and talented as ever. And I’m not just saying that because I automatically like any actor who has announced themselves to be a Cardinals fan. (Ok, I do automatically like any actor who has announced themselves to be a Cardinals fan, but that doesn’t take away from his performance.)

But seriously. I can’t go on anymore without talking about the book. It just doesn’t really hold up. The characters aren’t fully realized, and worse, neither of Violet’s flirtations seem very plausible. So much so that the love scene at the end was completely out of left field. (And this coming from someone who knows the show and was expecting it!) You just don’t feel like Violet has really connected with anyone, except her late father (Alexander Gemignani — yet another strong cast member). I’d have been so much happier if this show were really about Violet’s personal journey, without the tacked-on romantic happy ending.

Of course, in that scenario I might not get to hear that gorgeous closing number, which atones for many of Violet’s sins. By the end of show, my thoughts amounted to “Wow, hmm, that doesn’t really make any sen— Oh who cares. This song is gorgeous.”