Sunday, May 25, 2014

Only one face in the mirror

Thank goodness for the non-profit Broadway theater, specifically the Roundabout Theatre, currently producing the musical Violet, which has had an off-Broadway history, but might be a tough sell to a commercial Broadway producer.

"See, it's about a girl with a terrible facial scar caused by an accident with an axe when she was a kid. So she journeys by bus from South Carolina to Oklahoma to see a faith healer and along the way, she hooks up with two soldiers, one black and one white. Oh, and it's set in 1964." Not exactly Aladdin.

However, it's one of the most compelling shows running today near the lights of Times Square and cast an emotional spell over this theatergoer, not least because it personally hit home.

As Violet, Sutton Foster plays the role without special makeup, her hair long and lanky. Dressed in a shapeless long dress and baggy sweater, Foster suggests the damage the scar has done by her body's attitude, which sometimes slumps with the hopelessness of a woman who never feels attractive, and her manner - wary, straightforward and never flirtatious.

Based on the story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, Jeanine Tesori's music and Brian Crawley's book and lyrics premiered in 1997 at Playwrights Horizons. I'd be willing to bet that its final arrival on Broadway is in no small measure due to the presence of Foster, who is usually seen tapping and singing up a storm in such musical comedies as The Drowsy Chaperone and Anything Goes.

Here, Foster inhabits a woman as real and full as any character by O'Neill or Williams -- and her bright mezzo soprano easily navigates Tesori's wide range of American musical styles, from blues to country, gospel to bluegrass.

Sutton Foster as Violet
I've seldom seen a cast where the principal players are so strong, they could each be the stars of the show.The story alternates between the present and Violet's backwoods upbringing with her dad, a man faced with a parent’s terrible realization that he tried strenuously hard to protect his daughter but grievously injured her. The role is intensely played by Alexander Gemignani. Joshua Henry brings his incandescent presence to Flick, one of the soldiers, although his belting power on his big number, "Let It Sing," momentarily overwhelms the show.

Colin Donnell as the other solider, Monty, nails his slick, cheerful nature and develops it into authentic feeling for Violet. The show never plays the Southern environment for cheap laughs and as the faith healer, Ben Davis never slides into caricature. What a delightful surprise to find Annie Golden (whom I interviewed in the 1970s when she led a rock band named the Shirts) creating gem-like moments as an Old Lady (hey, she's only 63) and Hotel Hooker. As Young Violet, Emerson Steele reminded me of another sensitive, wide-eyed child, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Right, Sutton Foster and Annie Golden
Director Leigh Silverman gracefully moves the characters through the chapters of their lives, often placing Violet center stage. Living with a face that causes such reactions as “maybe you’d like to have a booth” from a diner manager and stares from a bus driver, Violet comes to realize that the miracle she seeks will have to come from within her.

She is also made aware that she's not the only person who is being judged on appearance, as Flick navigates life as a black man in the South.    

We all have to decide how we will face the world but some have less choice than others. As a quick glance to the right of this blog post will show, the blogger maintains an interesting hair-free style, in this case due to the autoimmune condition (a word preferred to "disease") alopecia areata.

There are stares, thoughtless remarks ("Do you own a wig?"), unsolicited offers of prayer, inquiries about how the chemotherapy is going (it's not cancer), occasional creepy approaches ("I want to touch your head") and never a day when one is unaware of it.

Because the cause is yet unknown and there is no cure or viable treatment, people with alopecia try faith healing, aromatherapy, "stress reduction" -- all the things that rush in where science does not tread.

In the end, there's only one face in the mirror (one song is called "Look at Me") and you just have to go to the well (another - "Water in the Well") time and again, seeking the balance between looking out and looking in, judging how much of your authentic self lies on the outside.

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