Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review - Violet

As I believe I've mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of Jeanine Tesori.  I adore Caroline or Change; I thought her score to Lincoln Center's Twelfth Night was stunning; I had a grand time at Fun Home (I'm not as familiar with Shrek or Millie).  Her ability to put together a score of music that is cohesive and unique and dramatic at the same time is a wonderful thing.  Surprisingly, even though I've been hearing about it for years, I've never seen nor heard Violet before.  No idea why, though after hearing the compliments all these years, my expectations were pretty high.  Although no Tony voter friends invited me to be their guest, I bit the bullet and bought a slightly discounted rear mezzanine ticket for last night.  And I'm glad I did.

Jeanine's score for Violet is the highlight of the production for me: thoroughly American, with tinges of bluegrass, gospel, folk, and country-rock, all put together in a musical theater form.  I thought it was wonderful.  This is the sound of my childhood - when I see a banjo in the band, I'm immediately happy.  So, right off the bat, I was ready to enjoy myself. 

I knew the basic plot of Violet before I got there: a badly scarred and bitter young woman embarks on a bus trip so that she can be healed by a televangelist.  Her pursuit of being 'pretty' is something I can relate to - desperate for people to really look at her and to SEE her was very moving and identifable to me.  Having Sutton Foster play the part was terrific casting - although Foster IS pretty, she's also very sympathetic and spunky, so the audience is immediately on her side.

photo credit: Sara Krulwich
On the trip, Violet meets two soldiers, a prettyboy ladies man and a pragmatic openhearted African-American, who are both drawn to her.  Now, to be honest, in a story about a girl who is so facially disfigured that people generally can't bear to look at her, the fact that two handsome young men are immediately drawn to her both personally and sexually was a little hard to wrap my brain around.  I get that Violet is a special person, but...still.  Anyway, moving on. 

Because Violet has led such a lonely life, a lot of the piece is memory or fantasy, which made perfect sense.  I live a lot inside my head as well.  So I was very interested in this story and how it all played out.  I was moved by Violet's struggles and by the message about finding strength and beauty within yourself.  I was brought to tears several times, especially by the beauty and power in the music.  The cast was fantastic all around - I loved the three leads, and I was especially taken with Ben Davis as the televangelist and Alexander Gemignani as Violet's father.

I was not, however, taken with the sound design.  I was sitting in the rear mezzanine, in a seat on the right aisle.  I frequently had trouble hearing the lyrics, or at least clearly understanding them.  The sound was muddy and at times the band was too loud.  You would think that after running for a couple of months already, that kind of problem would've been figured out.  It was very frustrating, because when I could hear the lyrics, I enjoyed them very much.  When I got home, I bought the cast album in iTunes and listened to it a couple of times this morning.  Hmmmm.  Maybe that was their aim all along...

Oh, that's cynical of me.  Anyway, I enjoyed Violet and think it's a very worthwhile night at the theater.  This story is told honestly and is very heartfelt, with a lot of integrity.  So now I've seen two of the Tony nominees for Best Actress in a Musical - I think my vote is still with Kelli O'Hara, though Sutton Foster is quite worthy.  I need to get myself to If/Then and check out what's happening over there...

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