That’s how I feel about “Violet”, the current revival of the Jeanine Tesori musical (which premiered Off Broadway in 1997) starring Sutton Foster as a young, disfigured woman in the south on a journey to get a televangelist to fix her face. It’s the “American Hustle” of this awards season, except of course it’s 100x better than “American Hustle” because please. But like I said about that horrid movie, it's like "The Emperor's New Clothes", with everyone saying how they like it, I think, in order to save face. Although "Violet" is actually decent and perfectly performed, I think people are "Emperor's New Clothes"-ing it in their over-effusive, insanely exuberant adoration for what is really just an okay show.
Anyway, Violet, who’s turning violet, Violet, is like hey, I’m…of age…I’m going to ride a bus for days on end (man alive) to see this television preacher man who "heals" and "gets ratings" in…other southern state…and make him heal my facial deformity and make me purdy! So at the outset it’s hard to have much sympathy for her. I mean you feel bad for her, but not enough to get behind her on this journey to meet a televangelist. You're like, Oh Violet, you are so spunky and full of gumption and you win over everyone you meet on this bus, yet you beleive in the magical powers of these greedy lying bastards who make money off "religion"? It's “Sutton Foster meets “Leap of Faith””, the terrible no good Raul Esparza musical from a few years ago. (I actually enjoyed “Leap of Faith” more than “Violet”. It’s nowhere near as good, but it’s more enjoyable and fun! Take that as you will. Actually, I would love to see Sutton and Raul in a show together. But preferably not about televangelists. I think two Broadway shows about that kind of thing is enough.) Obviously, the real point of the story isn't about the destination of meeting the preacher but about the journey and the people she meets, as all motivational posters will tell you.
Violet gets on the bus (a group of chairs, thank goodness they didn’t try to make a bus) and chats up a nice old lady who recoils at the first sight of Violet’s face. Throughout the journey, Violet makes friends with two uniformed soldiers who just happen to both be gorgeous. Colin Donnell (Broadway’s Jon Hamm lookalike when he has a good haircut (i.e. not in his headshot)) is underused in a part that never really amounts to much. Joshua Henry gets the better role as the black man willing to fight for his country (it's Vietnam era) yet having to constantly deal with the shitty people actually living in that country, in the American south in the 1960s (or really just the American south, period. Or really just America. Or anywhere. People are racist). Henry, as Flick, is one of the few people who can understand the prejudice Violet experiences when people just see what she looks like. It’s a lovely sentiment that the two would share this connection, but the suggestion that the effects of racism are similar to the effects of having a messed-up face is bothersome to say the least.
The greatest part of this show is Flick’s show-stopping, star-making song “Let It Sing”. It seems kind of out of place in the show, yet it’s the best reason to see the show (similar to the out-of-place "Fly Fly Away" from "Catch Me If You Can", which should have been cut for story purposes but was indeed the best song written for the show). Joshua Henry has a voice, dammit, and it’s spectacular. He’s the most exciting and interesting part of this show. Actually, I’d love to see a whole show about Flick with Violet as the secondary character! Now that would be interesting! I want to see Henry headline all of the shows. Seriously, whenever he’s in a musical, you’re gonna want to see it.
The journey continues, and the relationships between the three main characters blossom into friendship and then into more. So yeah, both men fall for Violet. I guess there aren’t that many confident yet disfigured ladies in the south so once they met this no-nonsense gal they were like, “This is the shitttt!” or something. It reminded me of how on “Orange is the New Black” both guards think they are in love with Daya, who just seems kind of lame and blah and named after a vegan cheese that gives people stomachaches. Violet is 100x cooler than Daya, but the idea is the same. Violet and Colin Donnell have an unexpected tryst in a very dirty looking hotel room, and Violet sings my favorite song which for years and years I did not know was from this or any show but just something I fortuitously heard, memorized, and sang in my head before bed every single night. So when Violet started singing my special song to a sleeping nekkid man for whom she had lukewarm feelings, I was like…man. (The song is the lullaby “Lay Down Your Head”. Here is the best version imaginable.)
They make it to whatever square-seeming state they are going to, and Violet runs into a church yelling for the famous preacher man. She desperately screams how everything depends on him and she came all this way. It’s very intense and sad because you are like, Listen Violet, even if you see the man and he tries to help you, nothing is going to change. Realizing that she could not be healed, Violet has a kind of hallucinatory heart-to-heart with her deceased father, who is responsible for her deformity. The scene, heartbreaking yet lovely, seems out of place, as though it’s part of a more serious, important show. All the energy seems to have been saved for these final 10 minutes, which offer a too-short look at what the rest of the show should have sustained.
“Violet” is a really well done, very well performed, generally lovely show, yet in the end it feels not quite special enough. It’s small and sweet, and while other small and sweet shows can achieve untold levels of brilliance (like “Once”), this show doesn’t. I simultaneously felt that it was too short to accomplish what it was trying to, yet if it were any longer I would have started getting cranky and impatient. It belongs off-Broadway where it could be interesting but insubstantial without leaving people feeling unsatisfied. “Violet” is giving me the opposite experience that “Rocky” did: At “Rocky”, my audience was enraptured, energetic, and completely invested, yet the critics are meh about it, or worse; at “Violet”, my audience was bored (a guy next to me asked his girlfriend if he could leave, and it’s only 90 minutes!) and underwhelmed, yet critics are like orgasming over it. And many people are putting Sutton as the frontrunner for the Tony. Listen, Sutton Foster is incredible and will be in the Broadway Hall of Fame (I think that’s actually a thing but I mean it metaphorically), but she has two Tonys awards already. If she is THREE? That would be nuts. Like, Hilary Swank has two Oscars, and wouldn’t it seem a little excessive at best and ludicrous at worst if she had the same number as Meryl Streep? Same here. She’s wonderful and perfect and always is, but this isn’t the show for Tonys, and definitely not for a third. It’s a perfectly pleasant and enjoyable night at the theatre, but it’s lacking. Like a perfectly performed production of a B-level show.