Is there any contemporary musical theater composer more versatile than Jeanine Tesori? Last fall, she scored the graphic memoir-inspired lesbian coming-of-age tale Fun Home. In 2008, it was the bouncy screen-to-stage adaptation of the DreamWorks animated smash Shrek. Prior to that, she partnered with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner on the Civil Rights-era sociopolitical rallying cry Caroline, or Change. Her jazzy ’20s romp Thoroughly Modern Millie won Best Musical in 2002. Now, Tesori’s first (and arguably finest) work, 1997’s Violet, is getting a barebones but beautiful Broadway revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Amrican Airlines Theatre.
Tesori and lyricist-librettist Brian Crawley adapted from Doris Betts’ short story ”The Ugliest Pilgrim,” which takes its title character, a horrifically disfigured young woman (Sutton Foster), on a bus trip from North Carolina to Oklahoma in 1964 seeking the healing powers of a TV preacher (a too-refined Ben Davis). As musicals go, the story couldn’t be simpler.
Yet the material couldn’t be richer: As Violet gets farther from the place that literally scarred her and closer to her (totally unrealistic) fantasy of Ingrid Bergman cheekbones and Rita Hayworth skin, she lets down her guard and opens herself up to friendship?and potential romance?with two soldiers. The first is the hot-and-he-knows-it Monty (Colin Donnell, Arrow alum and Foster’s costar in the Roundabout’s 2011 revival Anything Goes), whose idea of a come-on is calling himself a ”Roman Candle?that you can’t wait to set off.” The second is the equally hot but far less cocky Flick (Joshua Henry, a 2011 Tony nominee for The Scottsboro Boys), who, as a black man in the 1960s South, knows a thing or two about being judged by his appearance.
As Violet travels from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Memphis to Tulsa, the music moves from warm, soul-stirring folk?the bulk and heart of the score?to smoky R&B and blues to full-throated gospel and back again. It’s impossible not to get swept up by rousing numbers like Violet’s ”On My Way” and Flick’s ”Let It Sing” (Henry pretty much blows the roof off the bus with that one) — or to resist Foster’s pluck and aw-shucks charm. Fantastic as she was in her two spangly, tap-dance-filled Tony-winning performances?flapper/stenographer Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie and evangelist?turned?nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes — she’s never been more vulnerable, or more moving, than she is here.
Save a bump or two, director Leigh Silverman’s production glides smoothly along. For this production, which debuted last summer as a two-night Encores! concert Off Broadway, the creators whittled down the show from two acts to 105 intermission-free minutes.
You’ll have to imagine the Greyhound; most of the weathered diner/depot-inspired set is dedicated to a platform for the nine-member orchestra. (But what’s with the over-amplification? Just because a song is called ”Raise Me Up” doesn’t mean it needs to reach ear-splitting levels.) And, more important, you’ll have to imagine Violet’s facial scar, the result of an ax blade swung accidentally by her father when she was a girl; Foster’s face remains unblemished. Of course, from the start, you know she’s on a fool’s journey. But you’ll never regret taking the ride. A?
(Tickets: RoundaboutTheatre.org or 212-719-1300)