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American Airlines Theater

“Things are ugly in this world,” says a character in “Violet,” the in-and-out musical that takes place in what’s been tatted up by set designer David Zinn to look like one of those seedy bus stations that dot America. Here we find our heroine, Violet (Sutton Foster in a startling, memorable performance as a woman both vulnerable and determined), on her way to be cured, she hopes, of the disfiguring scar she had since childhood, the result of an axe blade flying off and gashing her cheek.

We don’t actually see the scar for Foster’s face is unmarked. But the idea of it is there and others either recoil from it or shower pity. Two who don’t are a couple of soldiers.

One is the handsome Monty (the appealing Colin Donnell), the other his buddy Flick (a show-stopping Joshua Henry). Violet and Monty, who is white, have a romantic encounter, but it’s African-American Flick who holds her heart in his hands. The point, of course, is what we see is not what we get. Beneath outer appearances beat the universals of desire, love and sincerity.

No easy answers here, however, for Violet. The cure she seeks is from an evangelical preacher, one of those laying-on-of-hands charlatans. She feels that’s her only chance of salvation but, we know, it truly is not.

All this is told to music by Jeanine Tesori (whose later work, “Fun House,” is this season’s best musical). Tesori’s talent for an eclectic score allows for rock, blues, gospel and lots of country. Brian Crowley’s lyrics and book (based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts) are tightly bound: the show doesn’t pretend to go beyond its simplistic story or theme.

But it does draw you in, certainly when Violet recalls the horrendous accident that scarred her, depicted by a lively Emerson Steele as Young Violet and Alexander Gemignani as her brusque father, uneasy with emotions.

This is a pared-down show though stuffed with sometimes hard to understand southern dialect. Its intimate scenes, those with Violet, Flick and Monty, are more successful than ones with the preacher and his rousing chorus of parishioners. If the evening doesn’t completely engage throughout, it can rise to unexpected heights, such as Flick’s terrific “Let It Sing,” which Joshua Henry infuses with past repression and future hope.

Director Lee Silverman keeps things authentic. There’s no grandstanding here, no attempt to engorge a small musical with grandiosity. As such, we feel intimate with the characters; their hurts, their grasping for connections are ours, too.

--David A. Rosenberg
April 24, 2014

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