Sutton Foster has finally won me over. Not that she cares or was in the least concerned. She has had plenty of fish to fry, thank you very much. In her past roles that I saw however, she was technically proficient in every way and moved me not in the least. As Violet – the woman with a dream to shoot out of her life and into a new world – Foster is nothing short of spectacular.
Not for nothing – but everyone else is pretty spectacular as well in this production. To begin with they have the music of Jaanine Tesori to sing that is part operetta, part swing, part down and dirty and always engaging. There have been a few musicals of late that replace dialogie with singing and never make it out of the corral for a canter. Tesori has created music that lifts the spirit and engages your whole being.
This is the story of a woman who had a nasty run in with her father’s ax blade when he was chopping wood. The scar (never represented here at all) is enough to make grown men wince. She has her mind and heart set on a miracle television preacher (Ben Davis) who she knows can save her. So she hops a bus in North Carolina to travel across the south to Oklahoma.
On the bus she meets two soldiers, one black – Flick (Joshua Henry) and one white – Monty (Colin Donnell) who are buddies on the way to their next assignment. The soldiers take a shine to Violet, after they get over the scar shock, because she has a mouth on her. When the two soldiers get a little testy she shuts them down without blinking: Stop it! Coupla barnyard cocks. Ever chop the head off one? Brain the size of a walnut. Tiny little peckers too.
When the bus stops in Memphis the gents find her a spot in a local rooming house, to the dismay of the black woman who runs it. Violet finds herself attracted to men and they to her, but it is Monty who actually makes the move. This causes some friction on the bus ride when Flick calls Violet out for being had and being satisdied with a man who will buy her candy instead of actually talking to her. And he tells her that her dream of being healed is a waste. Everything pretty much goes to pieces with Monty playing a sad tune of “Please Come Back” and Flick fading. Violet stays on the bus to Oklahoma where she finds the preacher at a rehearsal yelling at his choir. His image is tarnished immediately so Violet calls on the Lord directly who fills her with a light so bright she nearly achieves lift off.
Back at the bend in the road where Monty is waiting she sees in his face that she is not healed ( she makes it a point not to touch it or look in case it would jinx her reunion with Monty). Monty, however, still wants her with him in a half hearted way. San Fransisco is his next location. Two days before he ships off to Vietnam. Violet, ashamed of herself and her blasted dreams refuses. After Monty leaves, Flick is free to bare his aching soul. Both of them are in need of being seen and both of them can do that for one another. The good guy gets the great gal.
Woven into this narrative are scenes between Young Violet (Emerson Steele) and her Father (Alexander Gemignani). He teaches her how to so math by playing poker. They argue over the memory of her dead mother and her few belongings. Later the older Violet confronts him about what he did or did not do to care for her after the accident. Each of these scenes is exquisite. The rest of the cast melts in and out of the story with style and grace. Creating characters that fly by as if we were on the bus ourselves.
The entire ensemble is stunning. Joshua Henry in particular is a standout – nearly stopping the show with his singing. As to why the choice of never showing the scar – I can’t say, but it takes away from the narrative. Foster makes herself as plain as she can, but she is unblemished. In addition there is not one word about racism in this story of a black man and a white woman finding each other – in the South – in 1964.
These two glaring choices damage the story and make the last 15 or so minutes unbelievable. But because the rest of the production is so spectacular, the evening is a brilliant and buoyant success.
Based on the City Center Encores! Off-Center concert production; music by Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts; directed by Leigh Silverman
WITH: Sutton Foster (Violet), Colin Donnell (Monty), Alexander Gemignani (Father), Joshua Henry (Flick), Ben Davis (Preacher/Radio Singer/Bus Driver 1/Bus Driver 4), Annie Golden (Old Lady/Hotel Hooker), Emerson Steele (Young Violet), Austin Lesch (Virgil/Billy Dean/Bus Driver 2/Radio Singer/Bus Passenger), Anastacia McCleskey (Music Hall Singer/Bus Passenger), Charlie Pollock (Leroy Evans/Radio Soloist/Bus Driver 3/Bus Passenger) and Rema Webb (Lula Buffington/Almeta/Bus Passenger).
Choreography by Jeffrey Page; music direction by Michael Rafter; sets by David Zinn; costumes by Clint Ramos; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Leon Rothenberg; orchestrations by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; dialect coach, Kate Wilson; production stage manager, Kristen Harris; general manager, Denise Cooper; production manager, Aurora Productions; associate managing director, Greg Backstrom; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Sydney Beers, general manager, in association with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, David Mirvish, Barry and Fran Weissler, Elizabeth Armstrong and Mary Jo and Ted Shen. At the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, Manhattan, 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Through Aug. 10. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.