'Bunheads' star Sutton Foster shows her silly side

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Sutton Foster isn't an emotional wreck -- as they say, she just plays one on TV.

The role as Michelle Simms on "Bunheads" is quite a departure for Ms. Foster, who briefly attended Carnegie Mellon University before embarking on one of the most successful musical theater careers in modern-day Broadway.

Five times nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards in the category of best actress in a leading role of a musical, she has won both twice, for 2002's "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and the 2011 revival of "Anything Goes."

Ms. Foster was nominated as well for "Little Women" (2005), "The Drowsy Chaperone" (2006) and "Shrek, the Musical" (2009). For the most part, her characters -- from Jo March to Reno Sweeney -- have been strong, independent women.

That's why her star turn in this season's "Bunheads," on ABC Family, showcases a less-familiar side of Ms. Foster, 37.

"You mean, what a mess I am?" she said, laughing.

Her role is the creation of Amy Sherman-Palladino, who brings the snap and witty dialogue of "Gilmore Girls" to yet another fictional small town show.

"This is really something so different from Reno, but it's been so much fun playing Michelle," said Ms. Foster, at a media party at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for ABC and Disney talent during the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour.

Her character is a serious dancer whose life is sidetracked, and she ends up working as a Vegas showgirl. When a businessman and longtime admirer, Hubbell, convinces her to marry him and move to his idyllic seaside home of Paradise, Calif., she gives in to impulse.

But the honeymoon is short-lived: Hubbell dies in an automobile accident, which leaves Michelle to deal with not only his estate, but also his prickly mother, Fanny, played by Kelly Bishop.

Michelle finds herself teaching dance in her new mother-in-law's studio, and there's trouble in Paradise.

As Ms. Foster noted, Michelle is indeed a mess, constantly discovering she has put the wrong foot forward in social situations, calling the worst plumber in town when the dance studio's roof springs a leak, getting drunk in front of her students.

Unafraid to appear silly, Ms. Foster's Michelle has perfected any number of eye rolls and frustrated scowls.

"Every time I get a new script, it's just amazing to me," she said of voicing Ms. Sherman-Palladino's latest bemused-yet-smart protagonist. "[The writer] knows her so well."

Ms. Foster, who worked with Ms. Bishop on "Anything Goes," has met her acerbic match when Michelle goes at it with Fanny: "[Ms. Bishop] is wonderful, she's so self-assured."

The show plays to a female demographic, ranging from tweens and teens to their moms and grandmothers. As with other Sherman-Palladino shows, the pop culture references fly fast and free, and the whimsy and absurdity levels make Paradise a surreal place, indeed.

The season finale is Aug. 20.

Mixing comedy, tragedy and meme elements such as ugly feet contests and a trip to the Sprinkles cupcake ATM, "Bunheads" is a big change from doing the same show eight times a week on Broadway.

Bring it on, said Ms. Foster: "My stage background makes [me] ready for anything."


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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