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Two Broadway-Bound Personalities

For fans of musical theater, it’s well worth making the effort to catch two Broadway-bound personalities that can still be seen in more intimate settings—but only for the rest of this week.

The first is Sutton Foster’s one-woman show/cabaret act, “An Evening with Sutton Foster,” which can be seen at the Upper East Side’s Café Carlyle through Saturday.  Foster is one of the few, true Broadway stars of today—a singing, dancing, acting (“a triple threat unlike any others,” director Michael Mayer calls her) star whose fame comes from Broadway alone.  (Her only TV or film credits include a hilarious bit role in HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” and a one-off on “Law and Order: SVU.”)

Sutton FosterAt the cozy Carlyle, Foster sings a handful of numbers from her debut album, “Wish,” as well as some more traditional Broadway standards (including Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” on the night I was there).  The best moment was a medley of three songs written and subsequently cut from Foster’s breakout hit, “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Foster could sing pretty much anything at the Carlyle and it would delight—her huge voice fills the small space.  (She’s well accompanied by Michael Rafter on piano and Kevin Kuhn on an assortment of string instruments, including a ukulele.)  The 35-year old singer may well be the closest thing Broadway has to an Ethel Merman today, and indeed there are moments in the show that you wonder why a microphone is necessary.  But it’s not the volume of Foster’s full, clear voice that impresses most—it’s the direct connection she makes with each song.  As charming as her album is, in person Foster’s voice and presence adds up to much more, drawing you in to each number with a simple, honest ability to make music come alive on stage.

Foster is heading to Broadway next season as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, and she may be joined in Times Square by Benjamin Walker’s “Old Hickory” in Public Theater’s hit off-Broadway musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s irreverent look at the USA’s 7th president is certainly sophomoric, but after two years of workshops and out-of-town productions, the 90-minute, indie-rock opera feels entirely at home at the Public’s Newman Stage.  I saw BBAA in its first incarnation at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles two years ago.  Much of the music is the same, but the lead performance by Walker is much more assured and the writing—especially in the second half of the show—is tighter and more focused (plus, if memory serves, the whole piece is about a half-hour shorter).

First seen in the election year of 2008, when America had a cowboy populist in the White House, BBAA seemed very much a commentary on the Bush Presidency.  Complete with southern swagger, trusting in his gut over research and an insistence on representing the heartland, Timbers’s look at Andrew Jackson felt like a way of explaining W.

Two years later, with another popular, charismatic president in power, the show’s main character feels like a more bi-partisan punk rocker.  As Walker plays Jackson at the Public, he feels neither a commentary on Democrats or Republicans, but rather a unique force of nature, one that shares the flaws and filigree of US leaders of all parties.

And make no mistake, BBAA is all party. At times it feels like a drunken college review (songs swing between references to Susan Sontag and history book terms like “the Age of Jackson” with glib ease) and other times it feels like an indie-rock concert.  The main thing is that it is always fun.  Donyale Werle’s production design is a big improvement over the LA version, as the mix of old fashion chintz and rock-n-roll chic works perfectly to enhance the mood.  Broadway may well be ready for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but it will be hard for it to top the perfect pitch of sarcastic energy flowing at the 299-seat theater through June 27th.

Image: Sutton Foster, courtesy the artist’s Web site.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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