Few performers engender more warmth and camaraderie in an audience than Sutton Foster. That was evident from the rapturous applause that greeted the two-time Tony Award winner as she strolled onto the stage of Carnegie Hall for her one-night-only concert with the New York Pops. But if there were suspicions in the Hall that this was a star coasting on her previous triumphs, Foster (with the help of Maestro Steven Reineke) quickly put them to rest with a show that was challenging, surprising, and a whole lot of fun.
Foster treated the audience to toe-tapping renditions of some of her old favorites, including "I Get a Kick out of You" and the title number from Cole Porter's Anything Goes, for which Foster won her second Tony Award. She gave a flawless performance of Arlen and Harburg's "Down With Love," gliding over Harburg's rhythmically compressed lyrics as if they were her own words. Skipping several decades ahead in the Great American Songbook, she dedicated a sweet and radiant version of John Denver's "Sunshine on My Shoulders" to her mother, who loved to listen to Denver on 8-track when Foster was a little girl.
Reineke's program spanned the breadth of American music. A brassy arrangement of Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" showed off the Pops' tremendous saxophone section. With violin solos by Cenovia Cummins and Sara Caswell, Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell" was spine-tingling and gorgeous. A medley of popular TV theme songs (brilliantly arranged by Fred Barton) had us beaming with glee as our favorite shows got a shout-out on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
Foster brought some friends along for the evening. The very talented Megan McGinnis was on hand to perform a duet of Craig Carnelia's "Flight." The two performed the same number during Foster's last Café Carlyle engagement, but its beauty and complexity was even more apparent with the backing of a full orchestra. Foster also welcomed her Violet costar Joshua Henry, dancing a pas de deux to the Freed-Hoffman-Goodhart number "Fit as a Fiddle (and Ready for Love)." The two worked up a sweat as they tapped across the stage, both grinning from ear to ear.
Henry nearly stole the spotlight here with two high-flying solos: a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and his crowd-pleasing signature number from Violet, "Let It Sing." But when Foster walked onstage holding a large black binder, there could be little doubt whose show this was.
"I'm going to go off-program for a moment," she said, explaining that since she's turning 40 on March 18, she's had to start considering older roles. Reineke struck up the band with the unmistakable opening notes to "Rose's Turn" from the Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's Gypsy. Foster gave a manic and idiosyncratic interpretation, unleashing her powerful voice and superhuman phrasing on this most famous of 11-o'clock numbers. On the last note, she raised her arms and cut off the orchestra before Reineke even had the chance. A declaration of her undeniable Broadway divadom, this audacious and incredibly satisfying surprise turn showed that Foster is a performer not afraid to take risks and push herself, even in a house as grand and intimidating as Carnegie Hall. "Do it again," a man shouted from the balcony.
As Foster returned to the stage for her encore, something extraordinary happened: The audience spontaneously began singing "Happy Birthday." It was a small way to thank her for an evening of pure entertainment, but it became one of those unforgettable Pops concert moments when even a 2,800-seat auditorium feels like an intimate gathering of friends.