It may not be the first time that two-time Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster has performed in concert in our area, but the crowd at the extraordinary Music Center at Strathmore may have been the largest she’s had yet. Certainly, those who attended her sold out cabaret at the Kennedy Center several years back or her more recent concert at George Mason University would have recognized several of the pop and musical theatre songs on her eclectic setlist. Yet, as she prepares an upcoming album with her longtime music director and collaborator Michael Rafter, she also enchanted the audience with some new selections that demonstrated her enviable ability to connect with songs that are largely focused on telling a story.
Accompanied by Rafter on piano, Leo Huppert on bass and Kevin Kuhn on guitar, she took an enjoyable trip down memory lane and shared some musical theatre songs she’s performed on Broadway to critical and audience acclaim.
A melody featuring snippets of “Not For the Life of Me” (from Thoroughly Modern Millie), “NYC” (from Annie), and “Astonishing” (from Little Women) may not be a new one for Ms. Foster, but it’s always a pleasure to hear her unforced take on these songs about young women in search of their destinies. Selections from her most recent Broadway outing as the larger-than-life Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes – the title song (performed as an encore) and “I Get a Kick Out of You” – proved why she’s one of today’s most sought after musical comedy talents. Her signature brassy belt reverberated through the cavernous concert hall on “Anything Goes” and her energy was quite infectious on both numbers making clear one or more of the reasons why she won the Tony for the role.
Other selections from the American musical theatre cannon included a well-constructed arrangement of Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle” (from Anyone Can Whistle) and “Being Alive” (from Company), Frank Loesser’s “Warm All Over” (from The Most Happy Fella), and Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “Down With Love,” which was featured in Hooray for What though is probably better known as a pop/jazz standard. The Sondheim melody proved memorable for the variety of vocal dynamics that she utilized to convey emotion. Each served a specific purpose to highlight the mood of and intent behind each measure of the songs. The Loesser-penned selection exuded warmth and proved very inviting as always. Her sardonic take on “Down With Love,” likewise may not be a new inclusion into her repertoire, but I nonetheless appreciate the expert comedy matched perfectly with precise yet free-flowing jazzy vocals.
“Down With Love” was not the only opportunity that Sutton had to share the many sides of her voice, including those which don’t get stretched very often on the Broadway stage. From her often performed opening number “Nice ‘N’ Easy” and John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” to several new selections such as the classic “Georgia on My Mind” and Harry Nilsson’s “Good Old Desk” she proved adept at tackling a variety of music styles from jazz and pop to folk.
Of the four selections, the playful “Good Old Desk” drew me in the most. While the other numbers were performed well from a vocal standpoint, I find she connects the best with songs that tell a story about a situation that a specific person is experiencing. This natural ability also served her well in performing two other songs about the dangers of falling in love – Jeff Blumenkrantz’s “My Heart Was Set on You” (written especially for Ms. Foster) and the jazz tune “Lies of Handsome Men.”
Yet, telling stories proved problematic for Ms. Foster when she wasn’t singing. The concert didn’t feature much banter apart from her talking about her longtime collaboration with Mr. Rafter and mentioning her move from Los Angeles. However, what banter that was included didn’t exactly let the audience get to know her any better, see her personality, or even set up why a certain song was included in the show. It’s entirely possible that Ms. Foster is more comfortable expressing herself in song, but with such an eclectic set list, it might be useful to let the audience in (at least a little bit) on reasons for including one song or another. A few words here and there wouldn’t necessarily be overkill.
With this hour-long concert, Ms. Foster brought attention to the fact that while a theme might be a useful way to focus and organize a cabaret (particularly if no explanations for the song selections are included), there is a benefit to being able to pretty much sing anything, do it well, and be open to exploring a variety of music styles. At the very least, there’s likely to be a song that engages nearly everyone in the audience somewhere in the setlist. Likewise, there’s always going to be a sense of anticipation about what might come next.
Along that vein, I can’t wait to see what Ms. Foster does next.
This concert was a one-night-only event at the Music Center at Strathmore on October 12, 2013.