Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's adventurous Violet [PS Classics] received admiring but cautious reviews when it opened at Playwrights Horizons March 11, 1997. The uncompromising subject matter worked against it — it was hard to interest commercial producers in the tale of a disfigured girl who rides a Greyhound through the Deep South, becoming involved with both a white and a black soldier — and the show was unable to find backing for a transfer. (This had been the same situation a year earlier with the Playwrights production of Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins. While both would surely have been hard-sells on Broadway, they would have significantly enhanced the quality of seasons in which shows like Swinging on a Star and Juan Darien received Best Musical nominations.)
Violet languished 16 years, during which it received occasional productions. Then came City Center's new Encores! Off-Center, a summertime series of concert versions of Off-Broadway musicals. Artistic director Tesori not unreasonably slotted her first-produced musical into the initial season, and happily so. Violet was presented July 17, 2013 as a one-night-only affair, starring Sutton Foster, to a critical and audience reception so rapturous that it was picked up by the Roundabout and transferred to the American Airlines April 20, 2014. The revival — with Off-Center cast members Foster, Joshua Henry (Flick) and Emerson Steele (Young Violet) joined by Colin Donnell (Monty) and Alexander Gemignani (Father) — was lavished with a reception considerably more favorable than it had received at Playwrights in 1997, garnered four Tony Award nominations and has enjoyed an extended run through Aug. 10, which gives you two weeks still to see it.
PS Classics, which recently released the smashingly-good original cast album of Tesori's smashingly-good Fun Home, has followed up with a wonderful new recording of Violet. The show was trimmed to one act for the City Center engagement, with the authors cutting some material and adding a new song for Monty ("Last Time I Came to Memphis"). What's more, the Off-Center administration — i.e. Tesori — gave the creators free reign to perform what might be considered an edit and polish. Tesori, who has learned a lot about creating musicals in the past decade, and Crawley have re-formed and enhanced their work. As a result, the current Violet seems more gripping and emotionally uplifting than the earlier version. More gripping and emotionally uplifting, from my seat on the aisle, than any of last season's other Broadway musicals, new or old.
The cast album is every bit as effective as the show in performance. In a way, the score sneaks up on you. What sounds like a Nashville-twanged country blues score turns out to be far more; it's Tesori's voice, cloaked in Nashville-twanged country blues. Sitting in City Center for last summer's concert, I was impressed by the opening sequence (building to "On My Way") but absolutely amazed by "Luck of the Draw," a musicalized poker game. Or rather a musicalized poker lesson played simultaneously — 12 years later — against a musicalized poker game. The number features four characters (played by five actors) in two different scenes in two different times and places, all singing together and against each other to a gloriously jaunty tune. This is no country pastiche; this is musical theatre writing at its best; in retrospect, the earliest indication that the composer of Caroline, or Change and Fun Home is an important and out-of-the-ordinary theatrical dramatist.
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