Teach Her Tonight

Sutton Foster's got a lot to learn

Sutton Foster is wrapping up a two-week residency at Café Carlyle. (Photo by Stephen Sorokoff)

Sutton Foster is wrapping up a two-week residency at Café Carlyle. (Photo by Stephen Sorokoff)

As much as I enjoyed Sutton Foster as the perky but brassy-voiced star of the Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes a few seasons ago, her solo appearance in a cabaret setting (currently on view in the homestretch of a two-week run at Manhattan’s posh Café Carlyle) is pure ingénue, with nothing gained and everything to learn.

In the intimacy of an elbow-jabbing supper club, Ms. Foster is out of her comfort zone. The pluck is gone, and so is the showbiz savvy. Gone, too, are the strawberry-blond tresses of Cole Porter’s nightclub diva Reno Sweeney, the character she played in Anything Goes, replaced by long, stringy black hair straight as grosgrain ribbon, her face expressionless and her arms pinned to her sides without moving, whether she’s belting out a show tune from Annie or a lovely ballad like “Warm All Over,” one of the neglected Frank Loesser songs from The Most Happy Fella. She could use a little style. She often seems catatonic. And the mediocre arrangements by her accompanist, Michael Rafter, do nothing to enhance the proceedings.

“The Nearness of You,” a standard that has become a staple in the repertoires of many jazz singers, is so unnecessarily contemplative it loses its melodic simplicity. “The People That You Never Get to Love,” by Rupert Holmes, only reminded me of how much better it was sung on the superior recording by the late, great Susannah McCorkle. She finally gets around to a little bit of acting on the title song from Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, but to hear what a fine song it really is, listen to the exquisite original-cast recording by Lee Remick. For comedy, there’s a forgettable cartoon about summer passion with a man that depends entirely on the size of his … air conditioner. Fortunately, Ms. Foster also has an ear for worthwhile stuff like Francesca Blumenthal’s intelligent, sophisticated “Lies of Handsome Men.” Then, for some bizarre reason, she sings a song about a desk.  

She hits the notes with no attempt to interpret the lyrics. Even “I Get a Kick Out of You,” which she blasted to the balcony in her star-making appearance in Anything Goes, is surprisingly bland. Delving into the pop realm with “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” a naïve programmer by John Denver redolent of a teenage date with a guitar-plucking hillbilly is a big mistake. There’s nothing over the top, no flamboyant pyrotechnics, but no emerging sense of charm and personality, either. Ms. Foster seems sincere, and I assume she loves music. But you can eschew gimmicks and still sing straight ahead without putting the audience to sleep. In the sophisticated cabaret world, at prices that could pay the mortgage, Sutton Foster disappears like a smoke ring, leaving no impression at all. She might as well hum.