Sound Advice Reviews
THE VIOLET HOUR
I've spent quite a few hours being entertained and impressed with the studio cast recording of the yet-to-be-staged musical called The Violet Hour by the team of Will Reynolds (music) and Eric Price (lyrics and book). The presentation is rich, checking all the priority boxes: involving, committed performances that generate sparks; first-rate songs with attractive theatrical melodies sporting deft rhyming and vocabulary choices; tension balanced with comic relief. And resourceful Charlie Rosen has designed the most vibrant and voluptuous orchestrations I've heard in recent memory. With great specificity and detail, phrase by phrase, well-chosen soloists and combinations in the large palette (17 musicians, including Rosen on five instruments and pianist Andy Einhorn, who also conducts) add enormously to the impact. The orchestrations provide accents, punctuation, emphasis and subtext, sometimes serving almost like supportive scene partners reinforcing what is being said with words.
The plot centers on an unexpected opportunity to be privy to information about the future; the intriguing musical's own past is its 2003 incarnation as a straight play of the same name by Richard Greenberg. It begins in 1919 and has five characters. The first one we meet is a publisher who becomes increasingly burdened; Santino Fontana delivers a cannily calibrated and sympathetic performance in this central role as the other four people press his buttons in different ways. From the get-go of his opening song, things feel solid and smart: "I Know How It Ends," at first referring to the predictability of plots in books submitted to him, but then about his own imagined success ("From hand to mind to heart/ That's the pilgrimage of art./ I know that I will play a part somewhere ... The whole of my life/ Has led to this page./ What's not in the text/ Is what's now and what's next/ And what's waiting offstage.") And, when reprised, "I Know How It Ends" is about glimpsing what's to come in the momentous "chapters" in lives of the protagonists ("This is my chance/ To see in advance/ Why I choose what I chose.")
Solea Pfeiffer, who just opened in Almost Famous, here plays a somewhat famous singer focused on her forthcoming memoirs that are not as forthcoming as they should be. Stimulating more lust than trust, she purrs and pounces with femme fatale wiles to hopefully seal a publishing deal. Her early scenes get a film noir stylization, recalling the musical theatre atmospherics of City of Angels. A little of the slinkiness goes a long way, but later appearances allow for more than a one-dimensional stereotype not hinted at for a while. (Trust me; I know how it ends.) The other female role is essayed by Erika Henningsen who gets to cascade through highs and lows, including a glowing glide literally singing the praises of the plush hotel life "At the Plaza."
Brandon Uranowitz sparkles in a role that is largely fun and functioning as comic relief. He and Fontana nail the moments that capitalize on the confusion and wrong assumptions that swirl when the 19th century guys read pages written about life in future decades, misinterpreting "A Special Word" (the word is "gay") and being perplexed that the Amazon would have a store.
Charismatic Jeremy Jordan gets the most varied musical moments. Early on, he joins Fontana with gusto galore on a deliciously over-the-top, robust song from the characters' old college musical ("Sail On, Santa Maria!") and enthuses about the woman with whom he is besotted ("Rosamund"). He also delivers the evocative mystique of the title song and later material poignantly stirs up pathos and gloom.
This 28-track affair is a sumptuous feast of talent from all parties and is fully formed. The Violet Hour is in the entertaining and artful musical theatre lineage. In the Cole Porter tradition, a spunky celebration of having "Ease" is a list song (and more) with delicious rhyming such as "Paris has the Mona Lisa/ The Habsburgs have Marie Theresa" and "Ancient Rome had Western Asia/ The Romanoffs had Anastasia." There is hope for well-made theatre songs in the post-Sondheim world. I'm reminded of the lament of the older lady in his A Little Night Music who wonders "Where is style?/ Where is skill?.../ Where's passion in the art?/ Where's craft?" Guess what–it's all here. I'm no Nostradamus, but if I could gaze into the future life of this play about knowing the future, I think I'd see The Violet Hour shining very brightly.
P.S.: All the lyrics, a detailed plot synopsis, background information, etc. are available in a 33-page digital booklet, only available by ordering the Deluxe Digital Package directly at https://TheVioletHourMusical.com/. Also included in the package are videos and more.
Conventional logic would predict it would be daunting and decidedly a downer to face seventeen consecutive songs dealing with loneliness and mourning romantic break-ups. Although that's the set list Diana Panton sets forth for her appropriately titled theme recording, Blue, it's not as dire and dismal as it could be because the very gentle-voiced lady and her instrumental companions make things understated. Eschewing throbbing melodrama and high-volume wailing, the Panton parade of laments is one that proceeds on tiptoe. She seems wounded but wistful, deflated rather than irrevocably devastated. A combination of the M.O. of restraint and the sweet vocal timbre makes self-pity sound pretty.
Frequent collaborator Don Thompson (pianist/arranger/conductor) fashions tasteful settings for eight players who share the agenda of avoiding mawkishness. Actually, the musicians sneak in with an effectively delayed entrance cue; the proceedings commence with the first section of "Where Do You Start?" a capella. This number segues into the misty recollections of romantic history of "Once Upon a Time" (Charles Strouse/ Lee Adams) featured once upon a time, 60 years ago, on Broadway in All American.
While losing its usual anguish, "Losing My Mind" from Follies gains gravitas and elegance with the string quartet's contributions. Indeed, material chosen from the huge reservoir of broken-heart repertoire is not redolent of someone reeling from shock in the immediate aftermath of a lover's exit or full of reflexive rage. It's mostly slow and reflective, from the point of view of someone who's had some time for reality to set in, but is still miles from the exit ramp on that lonely road to recovery. However, there is still enough variation in these shades of blue so things don't get redundant.
In lyric content, "Nobody's Heart" (Rodgers & Hart, from By Jupiter) is, notably, the outlier in that it never references a past relationship, projecting a person professing to be contentedly single. The rendition is successful in revealing a quantity of denial without making it overly transparent. Putting up a brave front also, and given an arrangement with a breezier lilt than the others, is the outwardly sardonic "This Will Make You Laugh." But Blue's grace in making "lonely" sound lovely will maybe make you cry in commiseration if you let its style of understatement give way to the underlying and undeniable sorrow of its songs. So, do keep the tissues handy.