If there is a theme to Sutton Foster's return engagement at Café Carlyle, it could best be described as "thinly veiled desperation." The Tony Award-winning star of Broadway's Anything Goes and Thoroughly Modern Millie sings a wide selection of songs ranging from tragic to comedic, often through a toothy perma-smile. Yet behind the veneer of those pearly whites lies a deep sadness, a longing for happier times gone by or perhaps even an imagined happiness that never was. It is a difficult mood to maintain, but Foster pulls it off with her subtle charm and seemingly effortless performances. If you go, be careful not to cry into your crème brûlée. It ruins the flavor.
That's not to say there aren't moments of levity in the evening. Christine Lavin's "Air Conditioner," a Foster favorite that appears on both of her solo albums including the live recording of her last Café Carlyle appearance, has the audience rolling. This song about a woman willing to go home with any man, provided he has an AC, feels especially appropriate in light of the sudden September heat wave. Harry Nilsson's "Good Old Desk," a song about the emotionless reliability of one's work station is also quite funny in the hands of a gifted comic like Foster, although lines like, "I've never once heard it cry; I've never seen it tease," take on an added poignancy when delivered with a knowing smile that betrays delusional cheer just barely holding on by a string.
Down-tempo songs like "The Lies of Handsome Men" by Francesca Blumenthal and "The People That You Never Get to Love" by Rupert Holmes are more forthright in their melancholy. Even Jeff Blumenkrantz's driving "My Heart Was Set on You" (also featured on the Live at the Cafe Carlyle album) speaks to lost love, albeit the kind one recalls wistfully. Her warm voice and hauntingly dark eyes clearly articulate the emotionally painful stories of these songs, even as her smile attempts to play defense.
Foster has wisely chosen her supporting players in this latest stint at the Carlyle. Musical director Michael Rafter provides such natural and dynamically perfect accompaniment that it is easy to forget he is back there. (Foster is not one for a lot of inter-song banter with her pianist.) Foster's Little Women castmate Megan McGinnis joins her for two numbers, the harmonically complex "Flight" by Craig Carnelia (from Foster's debut album Wish) and the Simon & Garfunkel song "Old Friends/Bookends." The latter, impressively delivered a cappella and without amplification, is a highlight of the evening. One can imagine this is how the March sisters (or at least Beth) might entertain their guests at a party.
Foster brings back some old favorites including a medley of "Not For the Life of Me" (Thoroughly Modern Millie), "NYC" (Annie), and "Astonishing" (Little Women). Her rendition of Frank Loesser's "Warm All Over" (featured on Wish) showcases her remarkable vocal control and ability to interpret a song. Her powerhouse performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive," however, is a showstopper.
On the whole, this is a sublime evening of cabaret performed by a true icon of the stage. Foster has an incredible ability to get into a song's emotional core and live there. She wrapped up the evening by singing James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes," a sweet and sad lullaby of the ephemeral, fitting for a concert that you just don't want to end no matter how verklempt it makes you.