May 24, 2011
I was underwhelmed by the current revival of Anything Goes, but I found Sutton Foster riveting; like Kelli O'Hara or Raul Esparza, or any of her overqualified generation of musical theater triple threats, she brings as much bone-deep conviction to her singing and dancing as she does to her acting. I'm not sure she's capable of a false moment; her blazing sincerity even shone through that awful Shrek makeup.
But there's been a strain of thought about her performance as Reno Sweeney that, as talented as she is, she's not a broad—that the brass in her voice is not matched by her performance or her type; that she's essentially too soft, too much of an ingenue. Well, I see what the critics are saying—Foster certainly doesn't have the edge or the bite, nor the Greek-mask glare, of a Lupone or Merman. But I wonder, for one, if that's the only way to play Reno. More to the point, I wonder whether Reno is even a character per se, or just a cluster of showstopping songs and period attitudes.
Then last week I was introducing my son to The Wizard of Oz and it hit me: The best template for pondering Foster—with her toothy, all-American sincerity, her easy but not default vibrato, her game and goofy side, her touch of vulnerability, her gift for genuine joy and surprise—is early to mid-period Judy Garland, from roughly Meet Me in St. Louis to Easter Parade. This is Judy after her eager child-acting days but before she was a hot mess, before her performances got querulous and brittle and in many other ways fascinating (cf. A Star Is Born). You might call later-period Judy a "broad," but what would you call middle-period Judy? Ingenue? Soubrette? Girl-woman? Do these categories matter?
I'd venture that Sutton Foster is similarly sui generis, which is why I don't particularly care whether her Reno fits a type; it's enough that it fills the stage, and then some.
Below, two flavors of Judy from a favorite film; I find it hard to watch her now without thinking of Foster.
Posted by Rob Weinert-Kendt at 12:45 PM