Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Jeanine Tesori is having a great year. After her ground breaking musical Fun Home was a huge hit at The Public Theater, her very first musical Violet, originally seen at Playwrights Horizons way back in 1997, has received a revival on Broadway that opened to rave reviews. Shortly after, a cast recording was released.

Much like Adam Guettel's work on Floyd Collins, Tesori's musical palette consists of a rootsy bluegrass and country sensibility with some path treaded into blues, rock, and gospel. And also not unlike Floyd Collins, Violet doesn't exactly deal with typical musical theatre fare as subject matter. You wouldn't expect a story about a girl with her face permanently scarred after being hit with an axe to be material that sings.

But it really does. And it makes for a truly moving and timeless musical.

Violet is as relevant today as it was 17 years ago when the show first premiered, and as relevant as it was even earlier when its story was first published as The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts. Young Violet Karl makes a pilgrimage to Oklahoma to meet a televangelist and she believes, perhaps quite naively, that he can heal the massive scar that she has carried on her face since she was 13 years old and her father accidentally hit her in the face with the head of an axe. On the way, she meets two soldiers, Flick and Monty, who she befriends and, soon, forms a love triangle with. By the end of her journey, Violet does undergo a transformation... not the one she was hoping for, but one perhaps even more important and substantial.

Jeanine Tesori's music uses many of the effective devices for which she has since become known. For instance, having different actors play the same character at different ages, and writing songs for them together (something she has done in Fun Home and Shrek). While Tesori could be criticized for recycling, she shouldn't be... the device is used to shattering and different effect every time she employs it. Tesori is also an articulate composer who makes strong use of counterpoint and discord in her writing to create dramatic tension. There's plenty of that here in Violet too. Though it's her first musical, Violet can be ranked among the most sophisticated of Tesori's work and can also be singled out as some of her most memorable and accessible song writing.

Tesori's compositions are matched with Brian Crawley's vibrant, clever, funny, touching words as a librettist and lyricist. His lyrics are memorable and he's written very economical yet very deep and complex characters. Violet Karl in particular simply comes to life thanks to Crawley. This album, recorded to the usual standard of excellence by PS Classics, also includes ample samplings of the show's dialogue to help keep the narrative coherent in the show's audio-only representation (PS Classics also did this with the recording of Fun Home and it's something I hope they continue to do).

Sutton Foster makes her return to Broadway in the titular role in the performance of her career. A break from the glitz and glamour of her previous roles, her Violet is complex, grounded, and raw. She sounds fantastic as ever here and feels right at home carrying the twangy country tunes that make up Tesori's score. She finds a playfulness through her tough exterior in songs like All To Pieces, she finds a contrasting tenderness with the gentle lullaby-like Lay Down Your Head, and she totally breaks our hearts in the final scenes where she realizes she will never be healed.

Matching, if not upstaging, Foster is Joshua Henry as Flick. Henry's delicious baritone is given many chances to shine on this recording, particularly in Let It Sing, a rafter-shaking gospel number that Henry lofts into space. His approach to the material is profoundly affecting, switching between powerful exuberance to deeply felt poignancy with ease. His counterpart, Colin Donnell is appropriately reprehensible as the vain, womanizing Monty, and his work on Last Time I Came to Memphis makes the track an album highlight.

Seen in flashbacks, young Emerson Steele is a revelation as 13 Year Old Violet, never overdoing her work and sporting a fantastically strong singing voice. Despite her youth, Steele's work here reflects great maturity. Steele shares her scenes with Alexander Gemignani in a layered performance as Violet's Father. He's a delight to listen to in Luck of the Draw, and is incredibly moving in That's What I Could Do preceded with a confrontation between him and Violet over who's to blame for the life-changing accident that left her scarred.

The rest of the small cast is just as excellent, brilliantly carrying ensemble numbers and giving them rousing power (Of the ensemble, however, special mention must be made of Rema Webb for her work in the song Raise Me Up that nearly blows the roof off). On My Way, one of the earliest songs in the show, is bouncy and memorable, and the full company finale, Bring Me To Light, is plentifully stirring and poignant. It makes for a gorgeous and affecting end to an entire show for which the same can be said.

Violet is a long forgotten but important and deeply moving work of American musical theatre, and I'm grateful that it has been revived and is getting the audience is deserves. Thank you to PS Classics for immortalizing this timeless gem of a score. Something must be said for a show as simple and small as Violet that ends up being as huge in its power as any other big budget show on Broadway today.

No comments:

Post a Comment