By Stanford Friedman
Having earned rave reviews for her recent performance in She Loves Me, and with past glories such as playing Louise opposite Patti LuPone in Gypsy and receiving a Tony nomination for her work in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Laura Benanti’s status as a stage star cannot be in doubt. Now, judging by her vastly entertaining performance at Café Carlyle, she is perhaps just one or two good roles away from achieving Broadway superstardom.
Looking radiant (with bonus radiance points for being several months pregnant), Ms. Benanti demonstrates a casual and natural sense of humor and a soprano that is as earthy as it is heavenly. Her 13 song set flies by in an instant. She begins with three pieces from She Loves Me, including her signature number, “Vanilla Ice Cream.” Then it is on to a roller coaster ride of her favorites. Close your eyes when she sings two Joni Mitchell hits, “Carey” and “Both Sides Now,” and you can hear Mitchell’s influence in her phrasing. She beats on a drum for a swinging version of Tori Amos’ “Take to the Sky,” and then there is a quick medley of what I will call MBRT, mostly butt-related tunes. Indelicately sandwiched between her wedding song (written by her musical director Todd Almond), and the title song from The Sound of Music, it’s a hilarious break in the proceedings that gives Beyoncé nothing to worry about.
With a voice that is trained for the hinterlands of a Broadway house, I had some concern that she might burst a front table eardrum or two in the cozy confines of the Carlyle. She, also, apparently had that in mind, asking the audience if her opening numbers were too loud. Not to fear, backed by Mr. Almond on piano and bassist Brian Ellingsen, the space felt full and warm, rather than explosive.
But if the room was acoustically sound, the atmospherics were a bigger issue. A running gag throughout the evening involved her worrying that she was defiling this famously classy locale. Was the way she sat on a stool too unladylike? Was this the first time “The Thong Song” had been performed here? These observations were funny because they were true. While her set would have killed at Birdland or 54 Below, this crowd was less that raucous. There was one lone yelper, one guy whom she thanked repeatedly for clapping at what she clearly had pegged as applause lines and, on this night, Alan Cumming, who applauded mostly by himself as the lights dimmed for the show to begin.
Despite having blown up the internet with her impersonation of Melania Trump, there is, refreshingly, not a hint of political banter to the evening. Instead, there are entertaining stories about being a child theater nerd, some outpouring of love for her current husband (third time’s a charm, we shockingly learn), and two Patti LuPone anecdotes which were funny despite the feeling that she was telling them not for the first time. Her encore is refreshing as well, in two ways. She eliminates the bothersome task of leaving the stage only to have to squeeze back through the narrow spaces between tables. And she performs the number, Kander & Ebb’s “Quiet Thing,” in the quietest way imaginable; a stirringly peaceful conclusion to an enchanting performance.
Laura Benanti performs through October 8 at Café Carlyle.
Performances will take place Tuesday – Saturday at 8:45pm. Reservations made by phone at 212.744.1600 are $80 ($120 for premium seating, $60 for bar seating) Tuesday – Thursday; and $90 ($130 for premium seating, $70 for bar seating) on Friday and Saturday. Reservations can also made online via Ticketweb. Café Carlyle is located in The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel (35 East 76th Street, at Madison Avenue). www.thecarlyle.com