'Violet' review: Sutton Foster in glorious musical

Sutton Foster (pictured, with Annie Golden) stars as

Sutton Foster (pictured, with Annie Golden) stars as a disfigured young woman on a journey to find beauty in this Broadway revival of the 1997 Off-Broadway hit musical, "Violet," by Jeanine Tesori ("Fun Home"). (Credit: Joan Marcus)

The new Broadway musical we've been waiting for has arrived. There's only one problem. "Violet," the deeply original, tough but romantic thrill of a show starring the smashing Sutton Foster, is not a new musical.

It only feels like one. The haunting chamber piece -- with infectious and unpredictable folk-country music by Jeanine Tesori and a smart book by lyricist Brian Crawley -- had just a limited run Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1997. Someone should have moved it to Broadway then, but at least the New York Drama Critics Circle named it best musical of the year.

So here it finally is, 17 years later and officially considered a revival, in a taut, vibrant, dirt-kicking show directed with exuberance and minimal fuss by Leigh Silverman. This is an expanded version -- with onstage band and an all-purpose bus-stop set -- of the one Silverman semi-staged as a one-night concert last summer as part of Tesori's first season as artistic director of the bright new Encores! Off-Center series.

Foster plays Violet, 25, a mountain woman from North Carolina, whose father, a widower, horribly disfigured her face 12 years earlier in a hatchet accident. (We never see the scar.) After he dies, she takes a bus to Tulsa in 1964 to be healed by a televangelist. En route, she becomes pals with a couple of soldiers. Colin Donnell plays the hunk, surprised to find himself drawn to her. Joshua Henry portrays the black man, the first Violet ever knew, who sings that he wants her to "see me the way I see you."

All are terrific, as are Alexander Gemignani and Emerson Steel in flashbacks of young Violet and her father, and Annie Golden as the old hooker with the face of melting ice cream and the smoldering pop voice.

In the middle of it all is Foster's Violet, with lank hair and lanky limbs and a glorious voice that cuts through complicated emotions without ever belting. She embodies both Violet's defensive armor and the childlike trust in a miracle that will give her "Gene Tierney's eyes and Ava Gardner's eyebrows."

Yes, this is an ugly-duckling Cinderella tale about beauty being skin deep. But it is filled with unexpected details, compassion for its quirky characters and, especially, a rigorous score that reaches its own destinations through gospel, bluegrass and heart-aching anthems to tentative hopes. This was the first show by Tesori, composer of this season's best musical, "Fun Home," at the Public Theater. May it not take 17 more years for Broadway to get that one.


WHAT "Violet"

WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

INFO $67-$152; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Wonderful Sutton Foster and thrilling, dirt-kicking musical.

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