Those expecting to see Sutton Foster belting and tap-dancing her way through her latest Broadway leading-role should be warned: the 39-year-old actress, who won Tonys for her turns in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Anything Goes,” provides a restrained, intricate performance in “Violet,” the Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley musical now open at the American Airlines Theatre.
It’s a startling turn from the Foster we’re used to seeing, but one that will transfix you all the same. Stripped of any glitzy costumes, wigs or makeup, Foster stands on stage in a plain sundress, her hair uncombed and pushed behind her ears, and breaths life into a complicated, flawed, hopeful character. You’ll feel as though you’re witnessing a star being reborn, 18 years into her career.
Foster stars as Violet, a stubborn young woman on a quest for personal healing. Violet was 13 when a rogue ax blade struck her in the face. The accident has left her with a ragged scar across her cheek and nose, and 12 years of being bullied and stared at has turned Violet into a shameful, angry and defensive person. Violet’s walls are so high, you’d need a crane to get over them.
We never do see the scar across Violet’s face, but there’s never a moment where Foster lets us forget about the pain it causes Violet. But within that pain is a beam of hope in the form of a televangelist (Ben Davis, of “A Little Night Music”) who Violet naïvely believes will make her “pretty.” So she travels via Greyhound Bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to see him. And along the way meets two soldiers, Flinck and Monty (Joshua Henry and Colin Donnell, respectively), catalysts for more internal, authentic healing. After all, like any Oz-like pilgrimage, life’s more about what you learn on the journey than at the destination.
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