Sutton Foster plays the disfigured lead in ‘Violet’ Broadway musical without prosthetics or makeup and taps into personal sorrow

For Sutton Foster, “Violet” represents a critical and deliberate shift in her career. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

A little more than halfway through "Violet," the musical revival that recently opened on Broadway, the show's central characters gather in a Memphis dance hall. The band, playing directly behind the actors, starts thumping, and people start boogieing.

The tempo builds, and a bluesy singer suggestively belts out:

Hey, I'm dyin'

I'm dyin' to do somethin' wrong

There's no denyin'

Denyin' strings it along

As the crowd around her swings, the show's title character, played by Sutton Foster, almost imperceptibly begins to tap her feet. But as soon as Violet starts to move just that tiny bit, the music stops and Violet is faced with a choice far more dramatic than deciding whether to dance: Will this woman, disfigured by a childhood accident, spend the night with a soldier she's just met, or will she continue down a lonely road toward possible spinsterhood?

Anyone who has seen Foster onstage over the last several years — as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," as Millie Dillmount in the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and as Janet van de Graaff in the send-up "The Drowsy Chaperone" — knows that the actress is prone to joyous celebrations of song and choreography. Seeing Foster fail to dance onstage is a little bit like seeing Matthew McConaughey keep his shirt fully buttoned — it's not what's supposed to happen. In fact, Foster's character is the only one in "Violet" who doesn't dance, ever.

In that and other ways, "Violet" represents a critical and deliberate shift in Foster's rapidly rising career, a tack away from musical merriment to more complicated and dramatic roles, parts governed less by dance steps and more by acting. In many of her most notable performances, the 39-year-old Foster played the most alluring woman (if not person) on the stage. In "Violet," her character is convinced she's ugly both inside and out.

"I think people see me as a song-and-dance comedian. That's what I do. Almost every show I've done has a tap dance number," Foster said two days before "Violet" opened to largely radiant reviews, nearly all of which singled out her lead performance for particular praise. "This is the complete opposite. I want to be seen as someone who can do many things."

A new bloom

"Violet" started as a short story, and its first theatrical adaptation was equally brief, running less than a month off-Broadway in 1997.

Doris Betts, a North Carolina novelist, published the show's source material, "The Ugliest Pilgrim," in 1973.

The short story followed a young woman named Violet traveling by bus from a rural outpost to a Tulsa faith healer. She has convinced herself that the televangelist's divine powers somehow can mend her facial scar, the result of a blade flying off her father's ax. Along the way, Violet meets two soldiers, one African American and one white. "The Ugliest Pilgrim" was adapted into a live-action short film, also called "Violet," that won an Oscar in 1982, the year "Chariots of Fire" took the best picture trophy.

Composer Jeanine Tesori ("Caroline, Or Change") and librettist Brian Crawley ("A Little Princess") first developed "Violet" in 1994 at the National Musical Theater Conference. Its New York premiere came three years later, and even though it received a handful of awards and award nominations, it closed quickly.

Tesori, who collaborated with Foster on "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Shrek the Musical," and Crawley decided that, rather than ditch "Violet," they would give it an overhaul.

Songs were reworked, added or abandoned, a two-act production was condensed into a show without an intermission, and the story's thematic essence — how we define beauty, what we need for acceptance, where we find compassion and forgiveness — was magnified.

"They are the things," Foster said over lunch in an Upper West Side restaurant, "that we deal with on a daily basis."

Last year, "Violet" was part of the opening season for Encores! Off-Center, a series of minimally staged musicals, for which Tesori served as the series' artistic director. . Foster played the lead role, and when the one-night production was received favorably "Violet" had new life.

Set in 1964, the musical makes several departures from Betts' story, including excising some of the short story's racist language and making the story of the black soldier, Flick (Joshua Henry, from "The Scottsboro Boys"), more closely parallel Violet's.