Sutton Foster, Joshua Henry and Van Hughes Let It Sing in Thrilling Violet Concert at City Center

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18 Jul 2013

Sutton Foster
Sutton Foster
Joan Marcus

Encores! Off-Center presented a one-night-only concert performance of artistic director Jeanine Tesori's musical Violet, starring Sutton Foster, Joshua Henry and Van Hughes, July 17. Playbill.com was there.

Excitement was in the air at City Center as the audience gathered for the concert performance of Violet. With music by Tesori and libretto by Brian Crawley, Violet was performed Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1997 and in a 2003 reunion concert featuring the original cast. The July 17 one-night-only performance, featuring an all-star cast that included two-time Tony winner Foster, Tony nominee Henry and Tony nominee Keala Settle, sold out quickly.

The lucky few who were in attendance were not disappointed; the production was beautifully performed, honoring the simplicity of the story as well as the complex emotions of the characters.

Inspired by Doris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," Violet follows the title character, who embarks on a pilgrimage to find a TV evangelical preacher known for performing miracle cures. Injured by a flying ax blade that cut her face as a teenager and left with an enormous scar, Violet believes the preacher can cure her of her disfigurement and make her beautiful. On her journey, she meets two soliders, Monty (Hughes) and his army buddy Flick (Henry), both of whom vie for her affection while she undergoes a transformation, although not the one she may have expected.

Read Playbill.com's interview with Foster, where she talks about preparing for Violet as well as her upcoming concert tour of the United States.

Sutton Foster and Van Hughes
Photo by Joan Marcus
Directed by Leigh Silverman, Violet was staged simply, with several chairs and stools that represented the seats on the bus as well as booths in a diner and beds in a hotel room. The cast wore period-specific outfits, but aside from music stands and the musical instruments played by the onstage band, no props were utilized. This bare-bones staging allowed the emotion of the story to be starkly apparent, and, thanks to the talent of the cast, it was.

Foster shone in the title role, portraying both the brittle defenses Violet had developed due to her disfigurement as well as the innocence and vulnerability of her character. She capably depicted her character's emotional journey, moving beyond defining herself by the accident that scarred her. Foster's singing was extremely powerful: Whether she was excitedly belting about being "On My Way" or tenderly urging Monty to "Lay Down Your Head," she was never less than completely captivating. 

Hughes was charming as the womanizing Monty, surprised by his attraction to Violet, and Henry shone as the honorable Flick, stopping the show with his solo, "Let It Sing." Christopher Sieber was excellent as the evangelical preacher who Violet sought, and Chris Sullivan gave a touching performance as Violet's widowed father, struggling to raise his daughter. Violet's teenage self was performed beautifully by Emerson Steele in her New York stage debut.

Settle, Anastasia McCleskey, Rema Webb, Paul Whitty and Austin Lesch performed several roles, each of them with flair. And, the addition of the Songs of Solomon Gospel Choir, under the direction of Pastor Chantel Wright, added extra life and energy to the show, as the choir sang and danced in the aisles, inspiring the audience to clap along.

The score of Violet, a blend of bluegrass, country, blues and gospel, is vibrant and pulsing with emotion, and was performed by a nine-member band led by Tesori and Foster's frequent collaborator, Michael Rafter.

Violet addresses some sobering and dark themes: inner and outer beauty, low self-esteem, and racism in 1960s America. In her darkest moment, Violet begs the memory of her father to "look at me." But Foster didn't need to do that; it was impossible to look away from the stage.

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Sutton Foster and Joshua Henry
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN