It’s been a week of highs and lows for Sutton Foster. Yesterday ABC Family finally announced what we have all been expecting for some time — it has canceled Bunheads, the critically acclaimed show created by Gilmore Girls‘ Amy Sherman-Palladino and starring Foster as a Las Vegas dancer-turned-ballet teacher. This came on the heels of a transcendent performance from the two-time Tony Award-winner in a one-night concert of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet as part of Encore’s Off Center, a new initiative at New York’s City Center to shine a light on Off-Broadway shows.
Highs and lows, indeed.
I’ve not always been Foster’s number one fan. It’s been hard to dispute her talent, of course — when I saw her deliver “Gimme, Gimme” during an early preview of Thoroughly Modern Millie, I leaned over to my mother, who I was seeing the show with, and whispered, “She just won herself the Tony.” She was undeniably great. But that show was not to my taste; neither was Little Women, even though Foster’s rendition of “Astonishing” was vocally just that. The Drowsy Chaperone was another showcase of her gifts, but another show I just didn’t connect with. And Shrek and Young Frankenstein I didn’t even bother to see.
But Violet. Oh Violet.
Violet was one of the most memorable nights I’ve ever had in the theater. I was only vaguely familiar with the music and the story before settling into City Center last week, but on July 17 I was blown by away by the music, the story, the performances, and those voices. Those voices! Foster, the ultimate triple threat, was stripped of one of her tools, but even without dancing a single step she was sheer perfection. She was tough, she was witty, she was guarded, but also luminous. And she has never sounded better. If this show has a future life, which I hope it finds, I can’t imagine Foster not picking up a third Tony Award for this performance. She’s shown in the past she does brassy well, but this damaged young woman is the part she was born to play.
Violet also forced me to realize — there is no one like Sutton Foster. No one. She is a singular talent — she’s an Audra McDonald, or a Barbra Streisand, or a Bette Midler. No one can do what she does. The fact that she can sign like she does (that voice!), act like she does (she really was brilliant in Violet) and dance like she does (that number from Anything Goes?) — forget about it. There’s no one like her.
Just a few more words about Violet while I’m on the subject — the rest of the cast was just incredible, but I’ve got to give biggest props to Joshua Henry as Flick. He brought down the house with a rousing “Let It Sing” — I was tempted to give him an Andrea Martin-style mid-show standing ovation! Van Hughes as Monty, Emerson Steele as a young Violet and Chris Sullivan as Violet’s father were also wonderful, and the big voices of Keala Settle, Anastacia McCleskey and Rema Webb were the definition of soul stirring. In fact, the entire evening was one of the best-sung performances I’ve ever witnessed.
Leigh Silverman’s direction was also extraordinary. Staged concerts can often feel somewhat stale — Off-Center’s Cradle Will Rock felt this way to me just a week earlier — but with Violet I felt like I was watching a full production. It was directed a simplicity that was perfect and perfectly evocative. I believed Violet had a facial disfigurement. I believed she was on a bus traveling to see a faith healer. I believed every minute that flashed back to her childhood. And when the actors closed their books at the end I had tears streaming down my face.
None of it would have worked, however, without Sutton Foster at the center of it. It took awhile, but I’m finally a believer. And though I’m sorry to all the Bunheads fans out there who are mourning the loss of that show, I’ve got my fingers crossed that program’s cancellation means she’ll be making it back to the Great White Way, so I can be wow’ed by her again in Violet. As the final song of that show declares, I’m ready for her to “Bring Me to Light.”
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