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From left: Sarah Greene, Daniel Radcliffe and Pat Shortt appear at the opening night curtain call of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan, on April 20, in New York. (AP)
‘Violet’ shows beauty in its score Dark humor wins in ‘Cripple of Inishmaan’

Some musicals are big and brassy, calling out for attention with their razzle-dazzle and sassy sets. Others are more demure, letting their simple beauty shine. How appropriate then that a show about inner loveliness chose the latter path. “Violet,” which opened Sunday at the American Airlines Theatre, makes a Broadway debut with just a few chairs, a simple bed, no big costume changes and a score so rich and sublime that you’ll hardly notice anything is missing. Sutton Foster stars as a young North Carolina woman in 1964, learning to let go of the scars of childhood in a story based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts. Accidentally maimed by her father as a teenager in an ax mishap, Violet years later goes on a cross-country bus trip hoping to have her damaged face healed.

It features music by Jeanine Tesori — the powerful force behind “Caroline, or Change” and “Fun Home” — and a book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. “Violet” was Tesori’s first musical and it was mounted off-Broadway in 1997, becoming a bit of a cult hit. A concert version last year generated so much excitement that it has arrived on Broadway, with much of its stripped-down spirit still in its DNA. “Violet” is a reminder — if we have already forgotten the power of “Once” — that a Broadway musical has to hit your heart as much as be visually pretty. A recent preview of “Violet” left some in the audience crying and smiling. And that’s with a show that has actors simply bumping up and down on chairs to recreate a bus trip.

Tesori shows an astonishing range. Some of the standouts are the rousing “On My Way” and the tricky overlapping triangle of voices in “Promise Me, Violet.” Tesori’s melodies sometimes return to overlap with a new song, creating a beautiful tapestry. As in “Fun Home,” her music seems to encourage ghosts — both sonic and narrative — to reappear. Crawley’s story is a little rushed, and while at times it sometimes seems to be veering into maudlin, he pulls out before danger. His Violet is a sharp-tongued, defensive woman who hides behind cynicism but seems to believe in miracles. Crawley may make you laugh when he has Violet dreaming up her new face by using movie star features: “Put Grace Kelly’s little nose/With Rita Hayworth’s skin/But Ava Gardner for the eyebrows.”

A foot-stomping number, “Raise Me Up,” goes on a tad bit too long and seems ill-fitting, while the central love triangle resolves itself a little too conveniently. But these are mere tiny disfigurements to a show that deserves our full admiration. Director Leigh Silverman has a sensitive, genuine touch and nicely navigates tough scenes when the staging gets complicated by multiple voices. (A poker scene in which young Violet and her dad harmonize with the adult Violet at another card table is pretty nifty.)

Of course, it helps when you’ve got someone like Foster, a natural triple-threat who this time doesn’t dance at all. She has burrowed into the character so much that you can feel her flinch from unwanted attention. And when she digs even deeper for notes, she lets them soar like birds. (The creative team has avoided any makeup or mask to illustrate Violet’s scar, a testament to Foster’s acting ability.) As great as Foster is, she has the good fortune of being the object of seduction from two of Broadway’s hunkiest singers — her “Anything Goes” co-star Colin Donnell and “The Scottsboro Boys” star Joshua Henry, who proves once again to be one of the sweetest, strongest singers around. His “Let It Sing” is a true highlight. It’s not too hard to figure out that a show about a woman who thinks she’s repulsive will ultimately deal with issues of beauty and the nature of love. It does, but it also explores guilt and belief, proving there’s a lot you can do when you have great songs, wonderful singers and keep it simple.

Contradictions of human nature are the fodder that playwright Martin McDonagh often mines in his masterfully satirical dark comedies about quirky rural Irish characters. Now director Michael Grandage has brought the original, mostly Irish cast of his recent sold-out London production of McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” to Broadway, with a very talented ensemble featuring Daniel Radcliffe as Billy. Grandage’s lively production, both raucous and tender, opened Sunday night at the Cort Theatre. It’s the first Broadway appearance of McDonagh’s 1996 tale about the insular denizens of a remote Irish island in the 1930s. Previous New York productions were off-Broadway, in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater and in 1998 at the Public Theater.

So boring is life for the residents of this small seaside village that a new feud between once-good friends is huge news, and they while away the time playing minor unkind tricks upon one another. A Hollywood movie being scouted on a nearby island soon sends them dreaming. Radcliffe, who made his Broadway debut in a 2008 production of “Equus” and returned in 2011 to star in the Frank Loesser musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” works as an integral part of the cast. To his generally callous neighbors, teenage Billy is just a target of ridicule, and how he became handicapped is one of the secrets that twist and turn throughout the play. Without showboating his twisted arm and leg, Radcliffe gives Billy a physical frailty and inner toughness combined with yearning that makes him a very sympathetic figure. Billy’s desire to escape from the stifling loneliness and tedium of his narrow-minded country village is at the core of the story.

McDonagh ricochets between crass humor, careless cruelty and tender sorrow, all the while poking fun at Irish folklore, toying with stereotypes, and setting his characters up to have their dreams crushed. He suddenly reverses their backstories or presents unseen sides to their personalities that upend what the audience thinks it knows. Pat Shortt is blustery fun as the town’s gossip-monger, who fancies himself the town crier while bartering his news tidbits for food. Far from being the loving son who lives at home with his sainted mother, he’s been plying his foul-mouthed, ancient Mammy (a marvelously dour, rubbery-faced June Watson) with alcohol for years, in hopes of killing her. Billy’s secret crush is Helen (played with gleeful meanness and a perfect touch of insecurity by Sarah Greene). She’s a beautiful young redhead who seems unnecessarily cruel. Her sharp-tongued, egg-tossing ways too easily escalate to possible animal brutality. She also provides brittle, anti-Catholic comedy with her casual references to the clergy whose groping she’s violently fending off since childhood.”

Padraic Delaney seems genuinely kindhearted as a boat owner who helps Billy. Conor MacNeill is quite funny as Helen’s tormented, candy-obsessed younger brother Bartley, while Gary Lilburn provides a grounding presence as the town doctor. Two of the most wonderfully wrought characters are Billy’s comical yet brooding aunts who have raised him. Their repetitious, chorus-like banter is given delightful nuance by Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie. Christiopher Oram’s rustic, slightly decaying, stone-laden set and simple, drab costumes add to the downtrodden atmosphere. While Billy’s coming of age is tinged with melodrama by McDonagh’s fervid plotting, he and his fellow Inishmaan residents remain memorable and richly drawn, providing an evening of boisterous theatricality that overlays buried empathy for our shared human frailties. (AP)

By Mark Kennedy

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