ON THE RECORD: Sutton Foster, Joshua Henry and Colin Donnell "Let It Sing" in Broadway Recording of Violet

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27 Jul 2014

Sutton Foster

The score, while steadily advancing the story and exploring the characters' emotions, is salted with treasures. "Let It Sing" for Flick, the more sensitive of the two soldiers; "Lay Down Your Head," a beauteous lullaby for Violet; "Promise Me, Violet," a multi-part musical scene for the three main characters which transmutes into the score's most moving passage ("I'll Be Waiting"); "Look At Me," the heroine's big soliloquy; and more.

Tesori and Crawley — mustn't forget lyricist/librettist Crawley, who is an equal partner in the show's strengths — are fortunate in their performers. Foster is a given; she has been tied to Tesori since Thoroughly Modern Millie, and starred in the composer's biggest Broadway show, Shrek the Musical. One suspects that Foster's availability and willingness was key to the selection of Violet for Off-Center, and she was clearly the selling point for the Roundabout. The result is stunning; as far as I'm concerned, Foster gives her finest performance thus far. You might say that Foster makes Violet look good, and Violet makes Foster look great. Get thee to the Roundabout before Aug. 10, if you're able.

The star is ably supported by Henry as a soldier, trapped by his skin color. Flick is the only character Violet can find who actually looks at her and sees her; Henry — who was so impressive in his Tony-nominated performance as Haywood Patterson in The Scottsboro Boys — does this with such truth and urgency that we believe it. The third side of the triangle is provided by Donnell, who appeared in a very different guise opposite Foster in Anything Goes. The 14-year-old Steele gives one of the finest child performances in memory, while Gemignani (Assassins) provides a strong singing and acting performance as the Father.

The score sounds wonderful, noticeably moreso than on the original cast album of the Playwrights Horizons production. The 1997 version, recorded on a restricted budget and released by a non-theatrical label specializing in religious music, includes about an hour's worth of the score. (The new two-CD set runs 85 minutes, including some patches of dialogue.) I for one recall listening to the thing once, years ago, and finding it promising but not compelling; I left it in the stack of recordings that I wanted to play again, sometime, but never did. Hence, my shocked surprise when the score unfolded at City Center last summer.

Driving the show from the piano is Michael Rafter, the musical director from 1997 and a close long-time associate of Tesori. The orchestrations have been significantly revamped. The originals were by Joseph Joubert and the late Buryl Red (Tesori's teacher and mentor). The capabilities of electronic keyboards have improved so much in the interim that the music dept. decided to take advantage of the technology and rethink the orchestrations. Listen to the deliciously buoyant tuba in "Luck of the Draw"; that's a keyboard, although you could have fooled me. Rick Bassett (the keyboard programmer in 1997, and co-orchestrator with Joubert and Red of Caroline, or Change) has joined with Joubert (musical director of Motown) to redo the orchestrations — which might be another reason the PS recording is far more effective than the original. The pit band has been augmented in places for the recording by actual woodwinds, which sound so much better than the synthetic kind.

Violet seemed like something of a dark horse for future life when it was announced as a single-performance hearing at Encores! Midway through the show, that evening last July, it was already clear to some of us that this thing had what you might call legs for Broadway. As it turns out, Violet seems to have been before its time, back in 1997. With Tesori and Crawley taking advantage of the intervening years, the revised and now "finished" version of Violet turns out to be an important and impressive modern musical.

PHOTO EXCLUSIVE: "Water in the Well!" A Two-Show Day at Broadway's Violet With "Young Violet," Emerson Steele

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And now Sutton and I sing "Don't Touch the Blood", a BEAUTIFUL song we wrote and composed together! Haha! Just kidding... It's not THAT beautiful!
Photo by Emerson Steele

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