BWW Review: AN EVENING WITH SUTTON FOSTER at Celebrity Series Of Boston
Sutton Foster, since her Tony Award-winning break through as the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, has been one of the select leading ladies who have held a decades-spanning monopoly on Broadway's biggest musicals. Foster holds the distinction of being one of the gawkiest, most palatably quirky actors working in the commercial theatre today. Unlike other recurring ingenues, Sierra Boggess, Laura Benanti, or Laura Osnes, Foster is just off-kilter enough to headline productions of Shrek the Musical as the ogre/ princess Fiona or revivals of Anything Goes as Reno Sweeney. Meanwhile, she is still conventionally attractive enough to be a safe, viable option to helm profitable productions of Sweet Charity, Violet, or the upcoming Broadway revival of The Music Man. The Celebrity Series of Boston hosted Foster along with a three-piece jazz combo (Michael Rafter, Leo Huppert, Matt Hinkley) and her Little Women co-star Megan McGinnis in a concert of musical theatre selections and jazz standards at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge.
The pews were jammed full of people of all ages, no doubt all familiar with Foster from different performances. While a crowd near the front cheered at mentions of her television show, Younger, my friend and I reminisced about her short-lived stint on Bunheads. When the first chords were played on the piano and she started crooning Oscar Hammerstein III's famously simple lyrics,
"When the sky is a bright canary yellow,
I forget every cloud I've ever seen,
So they call me a cockeyed optimist,
Immature and incurably green"
a tangible warmth and inescapable nostalgia seemed to fill the space to its high vaulted ceiling. The treasure of the evening was hearing her pitch perfect renditions of well-worn classics, like Lerner and Loewe's 'How to Handle a Woman', Stephen Sondheim's 'Being Alive', and a few obscure Cole Porter novelties. Unfortunately, a majority of the evening gave us snippets of these songs in wittily-arranged medleys. While this was a noble attempt perhaps to showcase more material, it felt consistently that once she was about to take the song through a bridge or climactic transition, she would instead switch to a new piece entirely. This made the few songs she sang in their entireties far and above the most engaging parts of the evening. Jason Robert Brown's 'Stars and the Moon' rarely receives such a driven, untarnished rendition. Shaina Taub's 'Room' exhibited Foster's ability to win us over, taking on the perspective of a character who is grieving something or begging for something which the lyrics do not entirely explain. The two folk duets she sang with McGinnis were also a nice variation from the breakneck pace as we dive-bombed through the American songbook.
Ultimately, though Foster performed a studied cuteness and awkwardness between songs, her stories and haphazard banter fell flat. The entire framework of the evening relied on thunderous applause at too many moments- in response to mentions of New York City or a revival of Annie- but not the whole audience was on board to provide, myself included. Her stories about her life were not quite stories because they lacked any development, and they seemed to be closer to jokes. But they were not quite jokes because they lacked punchlines. Halfway through the show, the woman next to me Googled 'Sutton Foster' and began reading about who she was. I followed suit- when I got home anyway.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Sutton Foster falls flat in a cabaret setting, not because of her talent (she is incredibly gifted and a very smart performer), but because she is simply not interesting. After graduating from high school and going to Carnegie Mellon to study musical theatre for a year, she booked national tours and then was plucked up by Broadway producers. Her career catapulted to the place many dream to go and she has stayed right there at the top, earning acclaim and widespread praise. I was struck by how middle-aged she seemed, shaking her fists toward young folks and their phones or the entire profession of strippers as a whole, but without much to show for her age by way of experiences to share. Most of her tales were just mentions of shows she had worked on or famous people she had worked with. Jerry Herman held that, were Carol Channing not famous, she would be the funniest, most memorable fry cook McDonald's had ever employed. Foster, if not famous, would be a fry cook with a very nice voice. As the conventional study of musical theatre and the conventional careers that follow become more and more common, I think it would be a tragedy to lose the art of the cabaret performer. There are still brilliant cabaret performers working in our country (in our city even most weekends at Club Cafe), but perhaps the age in which Broadway's biggest stars could also masterfully work a crowd with chat between their versions of favorite melodies has passed us by.
Check out more in the Celebrity Series of Boston's season here.
Photo credit Robert Torres.