In the Broadway revival of Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet (first produced Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons some fifteen years ago) director Leigh Silverman mostly succeeds in using the larger canvas of a Broadway stage and Broadway star power to capitalize on the musical’s strengths—but the piece remains handicapped by the thinness of its book. Violet centers on two sets of fragile human relationships—a love triangle among a disfigured woman and two soldiers that develops over the course of a Greyhound bus journey through the deep South in 1964, and the fraught bond between that woman’s younger self and her father—but the characters are sketched in strokes far too broad, with not enough emotional or narrative weight behind their connections or decisions. Still, buoyed by an intricately tuneful score (played by a nine-piece band onstage) and some very strong performances (particularly Sutton Foster in the title role), Violet doesn’t entirely satisfy as a whole, but at least it provides plenty of pleasures along the way.
The show’s major strength is its score, by Jeanine Tesori, which draws on a wide range of American musical idioms—blues, country, gospel, bluegrass, and Appalachian folk tunes. Placed on a platform that fills almost half the stage, the band and the music are visually as well as audibly central. Filled with rich string sections and minor-key harmonies, the songs are wistful, sexy, sultry, sometimes funny (one of the soldiers’ paean to the sex he’s had in Memphis is both sexy and funny). Foster’s voice has an effortless-sounding purity, well-suited to the unshowy songs, and a number of the other vocal performances (especially Alexander Gemignani as Violet’s father) are very strong. But although the songs can provide structure, a strong grounding in time and place, and even some character beats, the story still needs to flesh out and and inhabit that structure, and Brian Crawley’s book (based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts) doesn’t quite do the trick.
Twelve years ago, Violet was injured when an ax blade came loose from its handle while her father was chopping wood. She’s left with a disfiguring scar across her face (a scar that is not represented onstage in any way other than the shock with which people react when they first see her) and a never-healed relationship with her now-deceased father (which we see in flashback scenes between a young Violet, played by Emerson Steele, and her father, played by Alexander Gemignani). After years of scrimping and saving, she boards a Greyhound in her small Carolina town, headed for Tulsa, Oklahoma, to beg an audience with a preacher she’s seen on television, whose faith-healing powers, she is convinced, will not just heal her scar but make her beautiful: movie-star beautiful, Cyd Charisse or Brigitte Bardot beautiful.
On the bus, she meets two soldiers headed for Fort Smith—the cocky ladies’ man Montgomery (Colin Donnell), who is white, and the more serious, sincere Flick (Joshua Henry), who is black. When the bus journey is broken by an overnight in Memphis, they take her out for an evening on the town; both are increasingly drawn to her—and both are deeply skeptical of her pilgrimage. But she’s determined to continue on her quest—by the time she passes through Fort Smith again on her journey home, where Monty has asked her to meet him, she fully intends to be healed, beautiful, and ready to take on the world.
The character of Violet can be inconsistent: sometimes outgoing, filled with a sassy confidence and boldness, sometimes fearful, timid, and ready to be rejected by the world; worldly in her dealings with men, but hopelessly naive in her wistful belief that this preacher will heal her. Sutton Foster is a joy to watch and to hear, but having a performer with such powerful presence does tend to make the stronger side of the character more believable than her painful shyness and wistful, implausible hopes. The choice not to depict the scar, too, means we’re relying on the other characters to show us how damaged Violet is, and when those characters are also poorly defined, sometimes they become little more than that reaction shot. (Oddly, while the scar is invisible, in the scene where Violet is injured, the blood is shown; this felt like an inconsistency in the imagined world of the piece.)
It feels like both the soldiers are falling for Foster more than Violet; we see Foster’s magnetic charm, but not really what draws either soldier so strongly to the woman she portrays: strong enough for Montgomery to be ready to give up his playboy ways after knowing her for a few days, and for Flick to want to protect her from Monty and the world. And the men’s characters are mostly defined in opposition to each other: one a playboy, one a solid citizen; one with a casual ambition based on privilege he barely recognizes, the other working for everything he has. (The piece hints at the racial politics of the time, and the obstacles in Flick’s world that Monty neither faces nor sees, but seems mostly to be doing so as a tool to steer Flick and Violet together through the shared suffering of her disfigurement and his skin color.)
It’s possible that going from a more intimate space to the breadth of a Broadway stage has blunted nuance, that this is a subtle character study that doesn’t play to the back of a huge mezzanine. But I think the flaws in the book do run deeper. The music, and the chance to see Sutton Foster in a role that showcases her voice so well, make Violet worth seeing. Its story, though, doesn’t quite add up.