By: Sandi Durell
(click on photos to enlarge)
We all spend too much time looking in the mirror, comparing, seeing flaws that, most of the time, don’t exist – Beauty obsessed? Meet Violet, a young girl in the 1960s South, fixated on a facial scar that is barely noticeable yet dominating her life as she travels by bus from North Carolina eager to visit a faith healer in Tulsa, Oklahoma whom she believes will maker her “pretty.” This is a story of healing, belief and hope.
This is a Sutton Foster unlike any other you may recall from her Tony winning performances in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Anything Goes” – all singing, all dancing, all aglow and glittery. None of that here in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s first musical as it makes it’s debut on Broadway from 1997 when it played at Playwrights Horizons, the story inspired by Doris Betts’ “The Ugliest Pilgrim.” The stimulating direction is by Leigh Silverman (Kung Fu).
Toughened through the years of fighting off the bullies who made fun of her disfigurement, Violet has clawed her way through life, brought up by her father (Alexander Gemignani) who inadvertently caused the accident when a flying ax hit her on the face when she was 13. Ben Davis plays the evangelist whom she has seen on TV and believes will welcome her with loving arms and heal her.
As she travels alone, by bus, she meets and becomes friendly with two soldiers – a womanizer named Monty (Colin Donnell) and his African American friend Flick (Joshua Henry). Remember it’s tough times in the 1960s South and integration is in its infancy. They both fall for her but it’s Flick who has a true and heartfelt understanding of her emotional scaring and what true healing is about.
The music is dramatic country, folk, gospel and steeped in story-telling that portrays Violet’s pain and dreams reflective in the rich score. Showstopper “Let It Sing,” sung by Scottsboro Boys’ Joshua Henry, is a thrilling anthem while Foster’s sweet “Lay Down Your Head” digs into your heart.
Annie Golden does double duty as a lady of the night drunkenly singing “Anyone Would Do,” and as Violet’s comfort giving bus buddy.
There’s a foot stomping number “Raise Me Up” sung by the Preacher and his followers, giving Rema Webb a shining moment as she soars to the rafters. The entire supporting cast resounds with joyfulness.
All the while Violet imagines she will be healed so she’ll have Hollywood movie star features as she sings “All to Pieces” – “Put Grace Kelly’s little nose/With Rita Hayworth’s skin/But Ava Gardner for the eyebrows.”
The set is minimal and works magically with the use of chairs as seats on the bus, works as a diner, gas station, and Church pulpit to the credit of David Zinn.
Foster is brilliant and lovely in her naturalness; straight hair, no makeup as she morphs from ornery to simple understanding. The presentation is modest and yet so powerful.
American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, Manhattan, 212-719-1300, www.roundabouttheatre.org . Through Aug. 10. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
*Photos: Joan Marcus