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Dear Ms. Foster,
On November 22, 2019, at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, you gave a sold-out concert—and it was brilliant. At the beginning of the show, a group of folx were treating the show like a rock concert: applauding at the song choices and oohing and aahing at some of your more acrobatic vocal forays, but they were shushed quickly. I understand why, but it made me happy to see people bring Billie Eilish energy to a Sutton Foster show.
Even at such an amazing evening, there were issues. Ms. Foster, hearing you attack arrhythmic, jagged Sondheim songs is like watching Joel Embiid shoot three-pointers: you’re wildly talented enough to pull it off, but there are so many things you both do better that the choice almost becomes frustrating. Obviously, you should sing Sondheim. He’s the GOAT Broadway composer, and when all is said and done, you will be the GOAT Broadway leading lady. However, you are so extraordinarily talented, and have command of such a wide range of musical forms, that counterintuitively, I wish you would focus more on your strengths.
I love the fact that you love medleys, but there were one or two too many. While “Anyone Can Whistle” into “Being Alive” was absolutely stunning, I wish I had heard all of Kander and Ebb’s “Say Yes” rather than it being part of a medley. As for putting “Singin’ in the Rain” to the tune of “If I Were a Bell”—just don’t. It was a trick, and you are way too talented for such tricks.
Now for the good stuff
You hit the stage in a pretty, red-patterned sheath dress, hair down and wearing red lipstick that was both sexy and sweet. Without any preamble, you went to the mic and started to sing, and I have no clue what the song was. Old proverbs about making a joyful noise flooded my mind, and in a flash, I understood why they call it playing music. You were having fun while climbing a vocal mountain. Your ability, throughout the concert, to leap from the quietest of moments to a full belt with no stops in between was dazzling.
By the way, that belt of yours has obviously been oiled and polished, because it is fierce. You love what you do, and nowhere is it more obvious than your plucking of the most obscure of songs from The Great American Songbook. Your choice of Cole Porter’s “C’est Magnifique,” followed by “Ooh-La-La,” was by turns sweet, flirty, and sultry, the arrangement of “Ooh-La-La” incredibly intricate. Your fist pump at the end was refreshing—the only time all night that you acknowledged the difficulty of your musical choices.
The boss unicorn
The greatest revelation for me was your performance of Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon.” You flawlessly handled paragraphs of lyrics while honoring the complex emotional journey of a woman whose values change as she ages. The existence of Shaina Taub is extremely good news for American musical theater, and as much as I enjoyed your performance of her song “Room,” your advocacy of younger female Broadway artists, both composers and singers, is equally commendable. Speaking of other singers, you called Megan McGinnis your best friend, and that connection was obvious on your a cappella, atonal, Stockhausen-esque reimagining of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends,” which a patron later correctly described as “mind melting.”
In the NBA, players who have mastered a wider variety of skills than should be possible for any one human being (seven-footers hitting three-pointers from 25 feet, or 6-foot-3 guards blocking shots) are known as unicorns. When, in one of your final songs of the evening, you reached for and successfully hit a low baritone note—that’s a boss unicorn move right there.
I’m telling everyone who’s a fan of Broadway musicals that seeing you live should be on the bucket list. When you come back to Broadway in 2020, playing Marian the Librarian in The Music Man with Hugh Jackman as Harold Hill, I’ll advise fans: save your pennies or sell your children—I don’t care. Just go.
What, When, Where
Sutton Foster, accompanied by Michael Rafter, with Megan McGinnis. November 22, 2019, at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 / TTY: (215) 875-7633 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Merriam is a century-old venue with wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms. The front doors are manageable, though heavy. Wheelchair-accessible seats require navigating a steep and crooked aisle, and accessible bathrooms are reached by an elevator exactly as wide as a wheelchair. Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance from the extremely kind and patient staff members.
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