Dallas — There is no mystery to the allure of Sutton Foster. Her singing is broad and open, frank and friendly. She is completely at ease with the stage, whether in a small cabaret setting or in a large orchestral hall. Her shows are one giant smile shared between performer and audience alike.
Her performance with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on Friday, conducted by guest John Morris Russell, was trademark Sutton, flitting from clever medley to show-stopping curtain droppers, with the occasional change of pace or mood for a quiet ballad or two. The full extent of her astonishing vocal range was on display — sometimes within the tag of a single song. So too was the magnificent ability to personify the character of a song that is her stock in trade. At times her performance felt like a “plug-in,” where the orchestra was not quite in sync with her; nevertheless it was a performance of wonderful spirit and enjoyment.
The two acts of the performance were mirror images of each other each starting with the type of medley for which her recordings and cabaret acts have prepared us. On Friday night, she opened with “Cockeyed Optimist” (from South Pacific) before segueing neatly into Sondheim’s “Everybody Say Don’t” and then the song “Yes.” The overwhelming optimism set the theme for the very upbeat program while the Sondheim song gave play to her virtuosic vocal agility. She followed with a short medley of songs from her Broadway shows, but the whole program was refreshingly devoid of self-congratulation.
She did sing two pieces from her Tony Award winning-smash performance as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, but in both cases, she reflected her own awe and gratitude at being given the opportunity to sing the part. The first song, “I Get a Kick Out Of You,” led to a delicious mini-set of less commonly performed Cole Porter songs: the ancient but comical “Don’t Look at Me That Way,” “C’est Magnifique,” and “Give Him the Ooh-La-La,” which brimmed with champagne bubble sex appeal as only a concoction of Sutton Foster and Cole Porter can bring. It’s worth noting that “C’est Magnifique” was performed with just strings and featured a beautiful duet between Ms. Foster and the first violins, sharing the melody. One of her greatest gifts is the generosity of her performances and this beautiful and casual number displayed her willingness to allow the orchestra to take a leading role.
The remainder of the first act was taken up with two pleasant songs by Jason Robert Brown which suffered somewhat by comparison with the mastery of Cole Porter. Finally, she raised the roof with her performance of the song “Anything Goes.” Unfortunately, the volume of the orchestra occasionally overwhelmed Ms. Foster’s singing, whether due to a mismatch in the balance or a glitch in the sound quality. The cost was the tremendous raw power which she usually shows at the finale as well as the iconic and signature swoop on the ultimate word “goes” that makes the song hers.
The second act featured Ms. Foster in a sparkling purple gown which reflected the effervescence of her performance. The first medley, “If I Were a Bell” mingled with “Singin’ In the Rain” was a confectionary delight. It is hard not to be overjoyed when she opens her arms and spins to the short orchestral bridge of “Singin’,” a slight reminder of her skills as a dancer as well as singer. Having won us back into her spell, she performed a wondrously simple and elegant version of Hoagy Charmicheal’s “The Nearness of You” backed only by her mentor and accompanist Michael Rafter on the piano. For all her larger than life power and vivacity, the beauty of her art is in the tiniest of details. The way she says the word “kick” in “I Get a Kick Out of You”; the way she lilts the phrase “splashing my dressing” in “If I Were a Bell.” In this charming subtle piano-voice duet, the intoxicating breathlessness of a simple phrase, “Oh my,” draws the listener into the wonder and beauty of the emotion of love.
She immediately countered the treacle sweetness with a rousing, although now stock for her, rendition of the tart Harold Arlen song “Down With Love” and followed with a stirring duet on the song “Flight” with her close friend Megan McGinnis. John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulder” and then another Sondheim tribute, the short medley “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Being Alive,” completed the short group that was the only portion of the concert that was not completely new from other tours. Each of these pieces, if not novel, were extraordinary in their emotive power.
The final medley, returning to “Cockeyed Optimist” followed by two lesser known songs, “Take Me to the World” and “Starting Here, Starting Now,” was a bit less cohesive than other parts of the concert. It made a curious ending for the performance, not allowing her the last, big breathtaking moment of song that the audience expected.
Of course, the audience was not to be disappointed as her encore provided all the power and pizazz that anyone could ask for. Her rendition of “Gimme Gimme,” a signature song from Thoroughly Modern Millie allowed her to exercise the full range of her skills ending in a wild jazz cadenza that had every member of the orchestra tootling their heads off. Unlike other parts of the concert, however, there was no overpowering of Sutton Foster here. Firmly rooted in a song that had made her what she is, she soared far above the accompaniment. Her full magnetism on display, there was only one possible focus for this ending. The power of her personality and voice had lifted the audience out of their seats.
It is a wonderful thing to see a performer at the height of her powers and Sutton Foster displayed just such control at her performance with the DSO. To be sure, the orchestra could have accommodated her voice a bit better and some of the portions of the show could have demonstrated more cohesion between guest vocalist (and accompanist) and host instruments. But the overall effect was stirring and satisfying. Exactly what you would expect from a Sutton Foster performance.