First Nighter: Sutton Foster, Jeanine Tesori, Brian Crawley Make <i>Violet</i> Red-Hot

So extraordinarily good was the one-night Encores! Off-Center staged concert reading of the Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley, directed by Leigh Silverman, that it calls for some serious transfer-it-somewhere-else-fast thinking.
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So extraordinarily good was the one-night Encores! Off-Center staged concert reading of the Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley Violet, directed by Leigh Silverman, that it calls for some serious transfer-it-somewhere-else-fast thinking.

The presentation was such a five-star success that it made me decide -- I might not be alone in this -- that doing it exactly this way is how it should be done but wasn't when the musical debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 1997.

The reason I say this isn't to criticize the earlier approach as misguided but to suggest that something inherent in the very storyline creates a daunting obstacle to a more theatrically realistic presentation. It's an attack that a staged reading mitigates.

You see, Violet (Sutton Foster giving a phenomenal performance, about which more later) is a pathetically homely 25-year-old Spruce Pine, N.C., woman. Years before, she (Emerson Steele plays the young Violet) was struck in the face by a flying axe blade. She's so disfigured that strangers seeing her for the first time gasp before they can stop themselves.

To suggest the circumstances in the Playwrights Horizons undertaking, Lauren Ward (currently Miss Honey in Matilda) was asked to let several strands of hair hang down. To my way of thinking, this ploy was vastly insufficient at making the necessary plot points about the eponymous Violet, who climbs aboard a bus in the early 1960s to travel to Tulsa where she's convinced an evangelist will restore her looks. She's even hoping he'll improve on the original assets--Gene Tierney-like, Ava Gardner-like, Brigitte Bardot-like.

In a staged reading, it's immediately clear that the audience -- and not the production illusionists -- bears the responsibility for imagining a visage that has hardened Violet over the years to endless mockery. Her only recourse has been to become as quick on the caustic reply as her tormenters. In other words, her saving grace -- if it can be called that -- is that she gives as good as she gets. Yet, she's grown tired of forever having to muster the defense. It's a human and entirely sympathetic development.

Before I go on to heap praise on just about everything about this Violet -- with only a couple minor, maybe not so minor, exceptions -- I gotta confess that the Playwrights Horizons hair thing bothered me so much for undermining the tuner's maximum effect that my concentrating on it distracted me from how truly good the piece is.

To start, there's the Tesori music and the Tesori-Crawley lyrics. As Violet crosses the country -- encountering, among the other travelers, Flick (Joshua Henry), a sincere black soldier with a small chip on his shoulder, and Monty (Van Hughes), a white soldier so handsome he relies on women falling at his feet -- the songwriters seize the opportunities to write melodies and words that take advantage of genres indigenous to Nashville, Memphis and Tulsa.

And are they good at the delving! Without for the most part falling into easy pastiches, they spice the show with irresistible country, blues and gospel songs, all conducted by Michael Rafter at the piano and played by a crafty 10-member band. Don't ask me to name a favorite ditty, because I can't. I can say I only wish they'd instantly reprised "Luck of the Draw" (showcasing the poker skills Violet acquired from her dad), "Let It Sing," Raise Me Up," the finale "Bring Me to Light" and "Look at Me," which is the "Rose's Turn" of this offering.

And the singing that rocks the City Center rafters! Is it well established by now that there's nothing Sutton Foster can't do? It should be. Seen last as effervescent blond-wigged Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, here she's plain -- not to say scarifying -- Violet and singing with a country/western twang when it's called for. Her acting is flawless but never as moving as when she's delivering the demanding "Look at Me," which she shares with Steele -- who, by the way, is a Foster dead-ringer.

Henry received the evening's most sustained ovation for his jubilant "Let It Sing," one of those performances where you can feel the audience just waiting for the chance to let go. He's that ebulliently forceful. But there's not a weak voice in a bunch that includes -- all of them doubling and tripling--Christopher Sieber, Keala Settle. Anastacia McCleskey, Chris Sullivan, Austin Lesch, Paul Whitty (as Violet's good-hearted father) and Rema Webb, who solos like a lark at a warble contest on the Gospel-based "Raise Me Up."

If there are drawbacks to Violet -- there are -- they have to do with a libretto based on Doris Betts's short story, "The Ugliest Pilgrim." Not having read Betts' version, I can only comment that -- putting aside the obvious inevitability of Violet's disappointment at the result of her encounter with the supposed healer -- what she comes away having learned is fuzzy. Violet is hipper than she's allowed to be at that moment. And I'm not convinced I buy the Violet Flick romance, either. (Spoiler alert ahead!) The pairing makes for a happy ending, of course, but not one that seems likely on a couple of day's notice for poor, thick-skinned, thin-skinned Violet.

There is another Violet sequence that strikes me the wrong way, although it didn't seem to annoy the rest of the audience one iota. When Violet arrives at the Tulsa prayer meeting, she's quickly immersed in the "Raise Me Up" carryings-on. And not only are they carried on by the rest of the players, but they're joined by the red-robed Songs of Solomon gospel choir, under Pastor Chantal Wright's hand.

Thereupon ensues a rousing come-to-church interlude that to me -- maybe only to me -- is no more than another one of the 11 o'clock gospel numbers we've been getting for a couple of decades now. It's one of the cheapest tricks in the grab bag. And when the choir hustles into the orchestra aisles to get patrons clapping and swaying, all I can say is, Lord, have mercy. The song, yes; the impetus behind it, no.

But a hearty "Praise the Lord!" for everything else here, and a hefty "Thank heaven!" for Sutton Foster.

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