Sutton Foster brought her versatile talents and outsize personality uptown for one night Thursday as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook concert series. Taking a break from her chores as Princess Fiona in “Shrek the Musical,” Foster put on a dazzling display, amply demonstrating why she is Broadway’s busiest musical comedy star.
With Michael Rafter leading a ten-piece band, the star went through a brisk program of 19 numbers in a little more than an hour, offering a wide variety of songs and touching on just about every base of her career to date. The music of Jeanine Tesori — Foster’s composer on two starring vehicles — was prominent, with five songs including “Gimme, Gimme” (from “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) and “More to the Story,” a ballad cut from “Shrek.”
Also included was “Astonishing,” from the quickly-forgotten “Little Women,” and a bit of “N.Y.C.,” which Foster sang in the 1997 revival of “Annie.” (She tells us she can be seen in a YouTube clip of the show, as “the maid in the back with the big teeth”).
Comedy honors were taken by the star’s rendition of “Show Off” from “The Drowsy Chaperone,” into which she interpolated some Mel Brooks yodeling (a nod to “Young Frankenstein”) and her death scene from “Les Miz.” Foster also brought along a handful of laugh-garnering props, including a cameo appearance by her very own authentic Tony award (for “Millie”).
Foster’s career is remarkable by present-day standards. She has created starring roles in five new Broadway musicals in less than eight years. (This compares startlingly well to the musical’s other one-name icons: Bernadette has six, over 40 seasons; Audra has two, Kristin has one and Patti only two over more than 30 years.) Foster’s success stems from a combination of factors, including her suitability for a variety of roles and her apparent lack of interest in the security of a hit TV series.
But it’s the non-show songs that dominated the set, most of which are included on Foster’s just-released and highly enjoyable new Ghostlight CD, “Wish.” She starts out with a banjo-primed “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (from a quartet of writers including Duke Ellington), then switches from genre to genre, finding success on every plane.
From the pop world came Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof” and John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” both of which sounded very good indeed. Current-day songwriters — who, like Tesori, were introduced from the stage — included Christine Lavin, with the raucous “Air Conditioner”; Jeff Blumenkrantz, with the tenderly effective “My Heart Was Set on You”; and Craig Carnelia, whose “Flight” was one of the evening’s standouts.
This last was performed with Megan McGinnis, one of Foster’s castmates from “Little Women.” They were also joined onstage by Gavin Creel, of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”; the three friends performed a very funny novelty trio, Mike Craver’s “That Wicky Wacky Hula Hula Honka Wonka Honolulu Hawaiian Honey of Mine,” from the Off Broadway musical “Radio Gals.” Also high on the comedy scale was a tongue-in-cheek, flat-noted rendition of the title song from “Oklahoma!”
While the laugh level was high, Foster was duly impressive in her more serious moments. These included “On My Way,” from Tesori’s early musical “Violet”; a surprisingly effective rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from “Company”; and most especially a breathtakingly tender, piano-only rendition of Adams and Strouse’s “Once Upon a Time.”