by: Joe Regan,Jr.
For the second in the New York City Center Encores! Off -Center series, artistic director Jeanine Tesori revived, for one performance only, her own award-winning musical Violet with lyrics and book by Brian Crawley. As in The Cradle Will Rock, the orchestra, led by music director Michael Rafter, was seated on stage and the performers held or read their scores from music stands but there was direction of the scenes by Leigh Silverman.
What was extraordinary about this event on July 17th was that major star Sutton Foster played Violet (almost never looking at her score) and she was brilliant in her acting and singing, a glorious almost non-stop performance. Other major performers were Christopher Sieber as the Preacher, Tony nominees Keala Settle and Joshua Henry, plus Van Hughes, Paul Whitty from Once, Rema Webb from The Lion King and Book of Mormon, Chris Sullivan as the Father, and young Emerson Steele as Young Violet. This production was also enhanced by the red gowned Gospel Choir Songs of Solomon directed by Pastor Chanel Wright. At one of the faith-healing scenes, the house lights went up and the entire choir went out into the aisles stirring up the audience to a revival styled frenzy. There was never a dull moment in the presentation, and there was exemplary work by individual orchestra members on the guitar and violin during the country flavored numbers.
From the beginning, the performers’ energy was contagious and yet there were quiet moments, especially between the Young Violet and the Father which Steele and Sullivan sang beautifully. In case you are unfamiliar with the plot, it deals with Violet who has a scar on her face from a pick ax accident as a young girl. She has saved her money to travel by bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to be healed of her scar by an evangelistic faith healer. En route, she is befriended by fellow passengers and two soldiers, one black and one white. Her father has taught her numbers by playing poker games and her initial meeting with the soldiers during a bus break at a truck stop café is to beat them at their poker games. That song “Luck of the Draw” set the stage for all the ensuing action.
Foster did not have scar makeup but she was completely convincing in the way she styled her hair to disguise her disfigurement. Anastacia McCleskey energetically led most of the Gospel numbers and Sieber proved his charismatic star quality especially in his raise-the-roof Gospel number “Raise Me Up,” which roused the crowd to rafter-height frenzy! Young Austin Lesch did lots of the country-western solos, sometimes with a harmonica.
The entire evening had contagious energy and the audience, at the finish, instantly rose to their feet to cheer the performers. It demonstrated why Violet, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as Best Musical in 1997, is one of the most performed musicals now. It was a rare delight to see these professionals (working with only a short rehearsal period) give New Yorkers an evening to remember!