Sutton Foster's Singing Soars but Her New Show Falls Flat at Café Carlyle
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Sutton Foster may be a Tony-Award winning Broadway Musical Theatre darling, but if her opening-night show this past Wednesday at Café Carlyle (which launched her current three-week run until September 28) is the best she can do, she's far from also being considered a nightclub/cabaret diva.
After opening nice and easy--and even a tad seductively--with the old Frank Sinatra hit "Nice n' Easy," Foster related that her new Carlyle show would allow her to try out some songs (with her arranger and Musical Director Michael Rafter) that might end up on an upcoming CD. As it turned out, the entire show had that casual, I'm-just-working-on-my-stuff feel, featuring an eclectic but disjointed set with no thematic thread and uninspired patter. Even her appearance seemed thrown together. As cute and girlish as Foster still may be at 38, she looked decidedly unglamorous for a room like the Carlyle, taking the stage in an unflattering, aqua thigh-length dress that made her look like she was underdressed for her high school prom.
And that may be the crux of the problem. Sutton Foster is now in that strange and hard-to-navigate musical theater performer netherworld between youthful and adorable ingénue and more mature singing chanteuse. She may look like she could still play Millie Dillmount, the role that won her a Tony for "Best Actress in a Musical" in 2002, but now with 17 years experience as a Broadway performer alone, it's time for Foster to convey a more mature appearance and singing style, especially if she intends to continue doing nightclub and cabaret shows. There were a number of times during her sweet, but uninspired set that I wanted to ask, "Is there a good cabaret director in the house?"
Throughout her show, Foster sang like her usual skillful self, full of mezzo-soprano sweetness and sincerity, with an occasional belt and touch of the bawdy mixed with a surprisingly significant dose of boring. After the requisite homage to her past musical theater roles (a medley of "Not For The Life" from Thoroughly Modern Millie, "NYC" from Annie, and "Astonishing" from Little Women), she was lovely on Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's "Nearness of You," but on this and similar ballads (like Jeff Blumenkrantz's "My Heart Was Set On You" and Rupert Holmes' "The People You Never Get To Love"), her delivery and stage manner had that static actress-auditioning-for-a-show feel and displayed minimal intimacy with the Carlyle audience (although gauging by their reaction to each song, she could do little wrong). The biggest disappointments, at least for this reviewer, were her ho-hum versions of Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" (which she sang as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes) and Francesca Blumenthal's "Lies of Handsome Men." I've heard mature cabaret performers like Dana Lorge deliver this ballad with such heartfelt tenderness it can make you cry. Foster's mid-tempo Broadway-style vocal arrangement made her sound like a young chick that just picks the wrong guys but is always ready to move on to the next one. Didn't make me feel a thing.
Foster was much more effective when she conveyed some sass and attitude, as on a jazzy version of Christine Lavin's "Air Conditioner" (big laughs on the line "I don't care how big your blank might be . . ."), Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's "Down With Love," and Gary Richard Tigerman's hit for Leon Redbone, "Seduced." Although on the latter, it was weird positioning the song immediately after Foster sang Frank Loesser's "Warm All Over," as if she had just been seduced. Later in the show, Foster brought up her BFF from Little Women, Megan McGinnis, for lovely duets on Craig Carnelia's "Flight" and an acapella medley of Paul Simon's "Old Friends/Bookends." But the pedestrian patter problem reared its head on the set-ups to sweet but non-descript renditions of "Georgia On My Mind" (she was born in Georgia, get it?) and "Sunshine On My Shoulder" (she recently moved to LA and really likes it there).
Foster's best work in the show probably came at finale time when she was evocative and powerful on a Stephen Sondheim medley of "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Being Alive," and emotional and warm on Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer's "How Little We Know." Michael Rafter's accompaniment here, as in most of the show, was soft and subtle and always allowed Foster to have the focus. But the fine finale numbers were a bit too little, too late. Sutton Foster's singing voice is wonderfully polished and clearly beautiful and her delivery is effortless, but she could have put much more effort into staging a complete and compelling show for the Carlyle run. If this was all there was, I could have waited for the new CD. END