Like last year’s documentary-turned-musical, “Hands on a Hardbody,” the greatest challenge for the new musical “Violet” is inherent in its content. The alliterative “Hands” enacted the true story of 10 Texans vying for the keys to a pickup truck through a competition mandating that each of them maintain physical contact with the car for every moment of the show. “Violet” takes place primarily on a bus. Despite a compelling premise, “Hands on a Hardbody” closed after only 30 performances. Its distant cousin, another vehicular-based Southern swinger about desperate dreams and redemptive love, will likely fare better, but not well enough. “Violet” tries for originality and commercial appeal and falls just short of both. It moves, but it never really goes anywhere.
If these criticisms seem unduly harsh for “Violet,” a product of the endangered school of thought that believes that commercial theater can be more than entertainment for rich businessmen and hyper children, it is only because the show promised so much. With music by consistent Broadway hit-maker Jeanine Tesori, BC ’83, short story source material (“The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts), and Broadway’s original sass-free diva, Sutton Foster, “Violet” seemed poised to raise Broadway stakes above the lollygagging seasons of jukebox offerings peppered with mega-hits to which we have become accustomed.
The simple premise is a 1960s-era “Wizard of Oz” story. Foster, in the eponymous role, sets out in the first scene on a journey from her hometown of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, on a mission to meet a televangelist whom she believes has the power to heal the massive scar that has disfigured and alienated her since an accident with an errant ax as a child. And that’s really it. The show plods on from that first scene to the end, without stopping for intermission or deviating from a plot that is mainly linear. Frequent flashbacks add depth to Violet’s journey, but prevent full engagement with the bus journey to Tulsa that takes up the bulk of the play. We get what we expected from the story, but not what we deserve.
Violet’s Scarecrow and Tin Man appear the moment our protagonist steps into her first mode of transportation. Monty (Colin Donnell) and Flick (Joshua Henry) are making their own ominous journey, in combat fatigues and rakish grins, to what is hazily alluded to throughout the play as either certain death or eternal glory in Vietnam. The three founders’ friendship becomes a compelling study in human relationships.
As they play poker at rest stops and dance in Memphis honky-tonks, we see the strange attraction the men have to Violet and her futile fortifications against intimate connections. Their fascination with her modulates from mirth to pity to a strange adoration as Violet’s personality and mission expand profoundly. Henry, as Flick, showcases some of the best of Tesori’s successful score, particularly in an impressive exhibition of the elusive male riff in “Let It Sing.” Tesori’s sleeper hit song, “On My Way,” alone is worth the price of the ticket. In its brief window near the beginning of the first act, it shines forth from the kitschy set and bumbling plot to achieve a true moment of theatrical excellence and indescribable joy, forming a dynamic thesis statement that the rest of the show tries to prove.
A moment to reflect on Foster as she is poised to ascend from starlet level to take her place in the diva hall of fame: Foster has been Broadway’s go-to darling since her well-documented ascent to stardom in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 2002. To hear her sing is to hear the sound of a voice that does not need the benefit of auto-tune. She is more often cast for her inoffensive everywoman glamour than her theatrical integrity, but in Violet she finds a role that suits her more than any other on her astounding résumé.
The character of Violet is perhaps the most redemptive part of the musical. She is the full realization of the “strong female character” that we search with opera glasses for in popular culture. She avoids quirky by just being smart, which makes her faith in God and desperate belief in her miracle such a watchable struggle. However, the slapdash conclusion gives Violet a salvation that comes from someone else instead of within, which is as disappointing as it is incompatible with the message of the play.
“Violet” moves like the dilapidated Greyhounds its protagonist rides on during her journey toward acceptance. It plods along, bumpy at times, doing its job but never quite picking up speed. The songs and actors shine in spite of the small scope of the play, exemplified by the excellent Annie Golden’s errant, splay-legged prostitute, who wanders in and out of scenes for the sake of entertainment, never quite belonging to the story. The stage is cramped even when scenes move from the bus into the Carolina backwoods—the sprawling band takes up a huge swath of the stage. It is as if, in their excitement to prove that music is alive and well on Broadway, the show’s producers forgot that the stage must leave at least some room for the actors. Leigh Silverman’s direction fails to remedy this, forcing actors to the lip of the stage, where they lurch and gesticulate and all but avoid falling into the audience.
Despite these flaws, “Violet” attained moments of clarity. The actors moved, the songs swept, the script soared—at times above the plot. Theater like “Violet” incurs extra scrutiny because it tries to make an argument for the existence of the modern musical. “Violet” could benefit most from its own advice: “You’ve got to give yourself a reason to rejoice, / Cause the music you make counts for everything / Now every living soul has got a voice / You’ve got to give it room / And let it sing.”