06/18/2010 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First Nighter: Thoroughly Entertaining Sutton Foster

If you had to pinpoint the leading leading-lady in musicals today, you'd have to say there's no contest: It's Sutton Foster. Yes, Bernadette Peters is returning shortly to the Great White Way in A Little Night Music, along with Elaine Stritch, and Patti LuPone did back-to-back Sweeney Todd and Gypsy revivals. Catherine Zeta Jones snagged the Tony for her Little Night Music stint, but it's her Manhattan debut. Donna Murphy and Bebe Neuwirth are around, the latter currently in The Addams Family, but both occasionally trying producers' tolerance. Five-time Tony holder Angela Lansbury has also been seen twice in the last two years -- once in non-musical Blithe Spirit -- but now she's taking on supporting roles.

Whereas since Sutton Foster bowed in Thoroughly Modern Millie, she's done four more musicals -- Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein and Shrek The Musical -- with hardly a day off. And yet, for all the show-biz sophistication such a resume implies, Foster retains much of her apparently small-town Georgia upbringing, as is in evidence throughout her "An Evening With Sutton Foster" cabaret gig at Café Carlyle.

You can still imagine her -- with "big teeth," as she describes herself -- wandering by a rural stream, realizing she's got a voice and letting loose with it. Or is her ease and expertise a bit more crafty -- and craft-based? You could say her performing is the stage equivalent of make-up applied so skillfully by a master cosmetician that it appears to be nothing more than the often aimed-for all-natural look.

Foster plays the new-to-the-Big-City card in her opening number, "I'm Beginning to See the Light," and then trumps that ace with a follow-up medley of "Not for the Life of Me" by her Millie tunesmiths, Annie's "NYC" with its wide-eyed words, and "Astonishing" from Little Women. After segueing to the metropolis-mystical "Up on the Roof," she moves on from the dewy-eyed innocent but not so far that she doesn't return frequently during an act where she's the local-girl-makes good more often than not.

Wearing a revealing-non-revealing brown frock less demure than the sun-dress she wore during her brief stay last year at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, she does change into something blue -- this review won't reveal how -- when revisiting her "Drowsy Chaperone" show-stopper, "Show Off." That signals her foray into the more with-it woman she can be -- although she more than hinted at that earlier in Christine Lavin's "Air Conditioner," a liberated woman's insistence that no man is worth her time unless he has the right cooling appliance. Singing "Down With Love," Forster even gets into growling repeatedly in her lowest register on the word "down."

A prominent element of the natural look and sound she boasts -- without ever boasting -- is her pure, occasionally slightly nasal voice. Always on pitch and often featuring a resonant vibrato when stretching a final note, she indulges her belt on a segment involving what she calls "The Big Book of High Belt Songs." It's a risky sequence for which she minimizes the risk. Saying she'll let an audience member pick a song from a list of five written on slips of paper she puts in a cup featuring the word "Ho" (and the mate to a cup labeled "Pimp"), she was saddled with Wicked first-act closer "Defying Gravity," the earth-bound Stephen Schwartz anthem. Her rendition (obviously rehearsed, just in case) is fine, but this reviewer could have happily done without it.

Having been careful to include something from each of her stage assignments (she was in the last revival of Annie and thus "NYC"), she also inserts unfamiliar material. One is a song cut from Shrek called "More to the Story"; another is Jeff Blumenthal's poignant "My Heart Was Set on You," about an innocent being burned at love. The song requires the kind of subtle acting that Foster is adept at making seem like no acting whatsoever, just genuine disillusionment.

She's canny all right, without seeming as if that's what she's trying to be as she chats with the audience, telling, for instance, an amusing back-stage tale about Thoroughly Modern Millie preparations. She appreciates musical director Michael Rafter at the piano overseeing his innocent-sophisticated arrangements, and she praises guitarist Kevin Kuhn, who sometimes switches to ukulele or banjo.

By the way, the tall, long-haired Foster doesn't scant some of the great tunesmiths, which means that Stephen Sondheim's oh-so-painfully innocent Anyone Can Whistle (which she delivered only a few months back in the Encores! series concert reading of that ill-fated tuner) is coupled with the master's "Being Alive." She also dusts off Noel Coward's "Come the Wild, Wild Weather," and, as beg-off encore, does a sans-mic version of the John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Here, There and Everywhere." Before she's finished, as directed unobtrusively by Mark Waldrop, she's made the journey seem entirely effortless and delectably satisfying.