Violet‘s curtain rose and fell Off-Broadway in 1998, when its composer, Jeanine Tesori, was still largely unknown. Now that Tesori’s star has ascended, Violet‘s Broadway premiere gives renewed attention to one of the smartest, most sensitive book musicals to be written in the last two decades.
Set in 1964, the story follows Violet (Sutton Foster), a physically scarred young woman courted by a pair of soldiers, as she travels to seek healing from an evangelical preacher. Her ugly duckling tale dodges sentimentality with a grown-up attitude toward shame, love, and discovering adulthood, hallmarks of Tesori’s work that are given poetic expression in Brian Crawley’s book and lyrics.
Leigh Silverman directs the tightly paced production, which unfolds in a run-down bus station lovingly designed by David Zinn. The show’s nearly two intermission-less hours never tire, and its cast is by turns virtuosic and in perfect harmony. Foster, always a hard-edged performer, presents a Violet who is emotionally steeled but desperate for release. Her stirring presence is the production’s center of gravity, except when Joshua Henry and Rema Webb perform their scene-grabbing solos. Alexander Gemignani is tender and sympathetic as Violet’s father, and Annie Golden is an unexpected delight in a pair of ensemble roles. What’s truly rare about Violet, though, is that unlike most musical theater on Broadway these days, the show is so strong on its own, it doesn’t need to rely on its first-rate cast to succeed.