You know how it feels to reunite with a friend you haven’t seen in a while? I’m talking about a good friend, the kind of friend where you can let time go between meetings but you pick up right where you left off? The two of you laugh so hard your sides are sore, you reminisce, share anecdotes, etc? Well, imagine that said friend is the effervescent, Tony Award-winning star of stage and screen Laura Benanti, and the setting is the gorgeous Barns at Wolf Trap. An evening at Ms. Benanti’s concert feels like an evening spent catching up with a dear friend, except this friend has a gut-bustingly funny wit about her, and the smoothest, exceedingly versatile soprano voice.
If I had to describe the evening and Ms. Benanti’s gifts as a performer in one word, I would say she is ‘versatile.’ One of the many strengths of this concert is her ability to jump from musical theatre, to witty banter, to pop, to nostalgic banter, to a comedic original song, and back to musical theatre without skipping a beat. She also divulges her whole self to you, walking the line between brutal honesty and self-deprecation, which allows the audience to let her into their hearts, connect with her on levels you may not expect to connect with someone of her talent, and relate on a beautifully human level. Her anecdotes regarding people approaching her in airports, for a whole slew of reasons, be it to bring their husband a passport or discuss their career as an interventionist, reveals another personal strength that makes this performance successful; she is amicable.
While every number in the concert is memorable, there were definite standouts on the program. Benanti’s rendition of the title song from The Sound of Music was both breathtakingly beautiful and hilarious, as she performed as her eighteen year-old self performed her first time on a Broadway stage, unsure of what to do with her body for the length of the number, hands over her head and all. The comedic nature of the anecdote that preceded it allowed for a hearty dose of audience laughter, but through the performance she transformed into the self-aware, confident woman of thirty-five the audience saw before them.
Other comedic moments in the concert included Benanti’s “The Ukulele Song” during which she accompanied herself on the ukulele, “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” which was written with Todd Almond, and an irreverent medley of her “favorite songs,” incorporating the likes of Beyoncé, Sisqo, Sonny and Cher, Queen, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and the musical Showboat, to name a few.
Another highlight of the evening was a mash-up of Ellie Goulding’s “Starry Eyed” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” with back-up vocals by the exceedingly talented Todd Almond. Benanti’s effortless phrasing and full commitment to a unique pop sound made for a silent audience, in awe of the chameleon qualities of her vocal gifts. Other non-musical theatre covers included musical influences from Benanti’s youth, such as her Joni Mitchell’s “He Comes for Conversation,” Harry Chapin’s “Mr. Tanner” which featured a lovely dramatic depth and honesty, and Kat Edmonson’s “You Said Enough.” Interestingly enough, Kat Edmonson will grace The Barns at Wolf Trap on February 25, 2015, and Ms. Benanti gave that performance a lovely shout-out in her banter prior to her cover.
Ms. Benanti didn’t disappoint on any level, least of which in terms of the musical theatre selections on her set list. Her renditions of iconic show tunes displayed her stellar soprano stylings, and if you weren’t aware that you were in the presence of a Tony Award winner, you certainly were by the end of each of these numbers. My favorite of the show tunes she sang was “Model Behavior” from the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a production was able to catch on Broadway and one of Benanti’s finest, in my opinion. In the song, Benanti’s character, Candela, leaves her friend Pepa a serious of voicemails, ranging in urgency, hilarity, and words-per-minute, about her feelings towards her boyfriend, Malik, and namely that he might be a terrorist. This song displays Benanti’s comedic chops, her range within her comedy, and her outstanding diction. I could not thing of a more appropriate encore performance on which to end the evening.
Among the other show tunes in the evening’s concert were a modern, pop arrangement of Maury Yeston’s “Unusual Way” from Nine, which was modern in style but classic in its sentiment, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, which displayed the exquisite high notes and exuberance inside this powerhouse performer. Benanti mentioned that she would like to play Eliza Doolittle before she’s too old, and she most definitely should after her tour-de-force performance.
Accompanied by Todd Almond on the piano, and occasionally with his silky smooth backup vocals on a few numbers, the two have a wonderful friendship, which elevates the art they perform together before the audience’s eyes, and allows the conversational tone of the evening to have equal parts levity and grounded pathos. A beautiful number in the evening is a selection from Almond’s collaboration with the playwright Sarah Ruhl, a musical adaptation of Ruhl’s Melancholy Play. The two perform “Tilly’s Aria/Frank and Tilly Make Love,” which not only allows you to see Almond and Benanti take on a role other than themselves for a moment, but allows Benanti to show the audience that music in a musical comes out of a place where words won’t do the character’s feelings justice, and in such a way that the character must break into song. The compelling urgency with which Benanti sang Tilly’s parts was blissful.
Whether you were drawn to this performance due to Ms. Benanti’s television roles, on such shows as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Sound of Music Live, or Nashville, or due to her various stage performances, in such shows as The Sound of Music, Gypsy, The Wedding Singer, or In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), you stayed due to the dynamic duo of her quick wit and effortless vocal stylings. Her ability to unapologetically be herself, whether singing a song, sharing an anecdote, or laughing with her fabulous accompanist Todd Almond, as well as the audience, draws you in as time goes by. It’s a toss up as to who was sadder to see the evening come to an end, Benanti or the audience, but the kiss she blew the audience at the end of her awe-inspiring, a cappella rendition of “A Quiet Thing,” from Flora the Red Menace, put the sweet in the bittersweet ending.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Laura Benanti’s website.