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At age 38, Sutton Foster is no longer quite the ingénue. But as she amply demonstrates in her cabaret show at the Café Carlyle, she’s still capable of projecting a girlish innocence that makes her sunny renditions of such songs as “Georgia on My Mind” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders” utterly convincing. A few minutes later, though, she is a sexy vamp with legs that go on for miles, infusing Christine Lavin’s novelty song “Air Conditioner” with a deliciously naughty licentiousness.
As the Tony Award-winning star proved in such Broadway musicals as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, as well as the unfortunately short-lived ABC Family television series Bunheads, she has long displayed a knack for balancing those two sides of her persona. Here, she begins the evening with a mellow, relaxed rendition of “Nice ‘N Easy” that well befits the song’s title. Later, she delivers a medley of the Stephen Sondheim cabaret staples “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Being Alive” with fierce emotional immediacy.
The show’s schizophrenic nature doesn’t always succeed, however. After Arlen and Harburg’s bitter “Down With Love,” for instance, she careens into Harry Nilsson’s perkily playful “Good Old Desk,” leaving the audience with emotional whiplash.
Her extensive theatrical credits are reflected in several of the song selections, most notably with a medley of “Not for the Life,” “NYC” and “Astonishing” from Thoroughly Modern Millie, Annie and Little Women, respectively, as well as “I Get a Kick Out of You” from her award-winning turn as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. And she generously brings her former Little Woman castmate Megan McGinnis onstage for lovely duets on Craig Carnelia’s “Flight” and a gorgeously hushed, acapella medley of Paul Simon’s “Old Friends” and “Bookends.”
Performing with the expert accompaniment of her pianist/musical director Michael Rafter, Foster unleashes her powerful pipes only sparingly. More often, she takes a muted approach to her material, singing such ballads as “Nearness of You” and “Lies of Handsome Men” with a casualness that robs the numbers of much of their emotional potency. Such songs as Rupert Holmes’ wistful “The People That You Never Got to Love” benefit from the observational style.
As always, Foster is supremely likable, projecting a wholesome sexy sweetness that is hard to resist. But for all her stylistic versatility, she never quite succeeds in casting a sustained musical and emotional spell.
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