By Sarah Downs
Laura Benanti is charm personified. With her effortless glamour, beautiful voice and authentic manner, she is a delight to watch. Add to that a wicked sense of humor and you have the complete package. In her current show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Benanti’s charm and talent are on full display in a performance that moves easily from comedy to conversation, from pop tune to spellbinding ballad. Stunning in her sparkly dress, under colorful lighting, she is nonetheless totally approachable.
Benanti has put together an eclectic list of songs, drawing from a range of musical styles including pop, jazz, musical theater, even a little bossa nova, with excellent arrangements by Musical Director and pianist Gil Goldstein. She has so much to say, bursting with ideas, firing on all cylinders, that you cannot help but be swept up by her energy. You would think she’d just escaped her living room after being stuck inside for over a year …
Benanti has certainly not let the grass grow under her feet while in lockdown. She moved, cut an album, co-wrote the book M is for Mom (and also Merlot): A Modern Mom’s ABCs and has been donating time and talent in the service of others. Emerging from the chrysalis of home and family, Benanti is exploring musical styles beyond the traditional musical theater in which she has made such a mark, from her dazzling debut at the age of 18 as Maria in The Sound of Music on Broadway, to her 2008 Tony-winning performance as Louise in Gypsy.
She opened the first set with a Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk by Rufus Wainwright. It has a ragtime feel that made for a catchy opening, setting a relaxed tone for the evening. In the first set Benanti sang diverse music, including a light, sassy arrangement of the Jonas Brothers tune “Sucker” which was loads of fun but doesn’t read across the footlights as easily as it does in her recording. This is a principal difficulty with most pop music – it’s too insubstantial to measure up to performance by real musicians.
Like all the best singers, Benanti is a natural storyteller. She has the confidence and intuition to allow a song to unfold. What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life brought tears to our eyes. The touch of accordion in the accompaniment instantly took us to the streets of Mon Martre. Benanti was born to sing ballads, and Michel Legrand’s music sits right in her sweet spot, both interpretively and vocally. Wives and Lovers is also a great choice for her. Burt Bachrach’s music and the opportunity to showcase her flair for comedy. The same goes for the song The Boy From (a parody of The Girl from Ipanema) which features a terrific guitar solo by Pasquale Grasso.
At the halfway point of the evening, Benanti introduced Brandon Michael Nase, with whom she will be performing with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall on December 17th. He sang a gospel-tinged song, which he built with heartfelt sound. However, as written the song is somewhat repetitive and it did begin to feel a little too long.
The latter half of this cabaret featured some of Benanti’s great musical theater performances, showering us with her classic, impeccable soprano. Throughout this second set, from the innocent joy of I Could Have Danced All Night to the devastating honesty of The Party’s Over (a perfect 11 o’clock number!) her voice was fresh, her tone centered and assured. She was so totally in the pocket of her instrument that she was able to bloom vocally, singing easily over the band, granting them the opportunity to let the dogs out as well. I immediately relaxed. This just drove home the fact that singers can branch out, but they have to dig for the music that is worthy of their talent.
The evening ended too soon, and as we stood up an applauded enthusiastically, I could feel how post Covid life is a little different – yet, how much remains the same. We were so happy to be able finally to sit in a room together and watch a wonderful performance, more acutely aware of the privilege. This is live performance 2.0. We’re finding a way forward as we work our way back, and it feels great!
LAURA BENANTI, Feinstein’s/54 Below Diamond Series, starring Laura Benanti. Gil Goldstein Musical Director: Band: Gil Goldstein, Pasquale Grasso, Tony Scherr and Tommy Campbell; with special guests Brandon Michael Nase – Oct. 5th-10th and Miranda Ferris Jones – Oct. 3rd and 7th.
Feinstein’s/54Below, at 254 West 54th Street. This new week-long residency features concert-length performances matched with specially curated dinners. View menu . Seating is limited. Tickets start at $300 and can be purchased at www.54below.com/LauraBenanti.