Sutton Foster belts out hits at Kennedy Center

Sunday, January 16, 2011; 7:51 PM

Who has enjoyed more Broadway limelight in the new millennium than Sutton Foster? Since picking up her 2002 Tony Award (at age 27) for "Thoroughly Modern Millie," Foster has starred in "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Young Frankenstein," "Shrek the Musical" and more, with a headlining gig in "Anything Goes" set for March.

All that experience showed Friday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, where Foster knocked showstoppers out of the park as easily as a slugger belting homers in batting practice. How else do you describe someone who, just for kicks, ripped through not only "Defying Gravity," from "Wicked," but also the "Dreamgirls" shriek-a-thon "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"?

"Everyone might want to stand back," Foster cracked before launching into "Defying Gravity." Both tunes were drawn (at different points in the show) from a binder drolly labeled "The Big Book of High Belt Songs," and the daffy way Foster simultaneously mocked and nailed the monumental numbers brought down the house.

That winking heavyweight belting made Foster easily the most raucously received to date of the theater singers in the Barbara Cook Spotlight series, which is now in its fourth season. But it was hardly the only skill she displayed during her 80-minute set. A lanky ingenue with a wide grin, Foster took a restrained, girlish approach to such pop hits as "Up on the Roof" and "Sunshine on My Shoulders," slowing the tempo and lingering in a straightforward way with the melodies. Long, thoughtfully dramatic phrasing was her way in to songs as different as the galloping "Something's Coming" (from "West Side Story") and Duke Ellington's time-stopping "I Like the Sunrise."

Each note was pure, but the interpretations weren't always terribly interesting. (Scary thought: Foster has room to grow musically.) Her imagination seemed most fully engaged when she was horsing around; each lyrical joke in "Air Conditioner" landed tidily, thanks to Foster's lovely, relaxed timing, and she made a comic banquet of "Show Off," practically turning that "Drowsy Chaperone" highlight into a full production number with a costume change and a surprise prop (her Tony) that both got laughs. No wonder Foster gets plum jobs all the time in that nearly-left-for-dead genre of musical comedy: She's a heck of an entertainer.

- Nelson Pressley

© 2011 The Washington Post Company