Review: Laura Benanti’s ‘Tales from Soprano Isle’ at The Barns at Wolf Trap

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From the moment Laura Benanti stepped onto the stage at The Barns at Wolf Trap to perform Tales from Soprano Isle she set the buoyant mood for the evening. She charmed and enchanted even as she spoke of having a cold. She assured the audience that the show would go on. And that it did!

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Laura Benanti. Photo by Laura Marie Duncan.

Benanti was simply an enchantress, leaving the sold-out audience spellbound and happy as they hopped on to her musical journey featuring songs and anecdotes from her career.

The evening was one of Broadway music and plenty of unexpected pop and urban tunes. With her powerful soprano voice that moved between easily hitting operatic highs and at other times a marvel of deeper soprano velvet. She was a treasure trove of uplifting sounds and then quickly showing her uproariously comic nature.

As she walked about the stage and sat on a stool in her dark cobalt blue dress, Benanti owned the audience with her authentic manner. She was just a feisty delight who used self-deprecating, sometimes salty stories to win everyone over. Her visible pregnancy (a daughter) was a point of beaming pride.

So, if you don’t know Laura Benanti, just a few quick facts. She is an actress and singer. She won the Tony Award for her performance as Louise in the 2008 Broadway revival of Gypsy. In 2010 she was in the stage musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown receiving the Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. More recently Benanti earned a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway musical She Loves Me and was on television in Supergirl.

Along with her musical accompanist and collaborator Todd Almond, Benanti commanded the Wolf Trap stage. Her repertoire had a clearly wide range that began with about 15 minutes of songs and anecdotes from her work in She Loves Me (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock ) including a sweetly playful “Vanilla Ice Cream” (“I am so sorry about last night. Last night I was so nasty!).”

From there, she had musical conversations with composers/lyrists such as the Gershwins, Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Leaving Broadway, she took on Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell and even Beyoncé’s “All the Single Ladies,” and even bits of a Tina Turner-like version of “Proud Mary” among other unexpected pop hits, and all with well-choreographed moves. My eyes still happily water with the sight of her taking on Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit, “Baby Got Back.” Yup. You read that title correctly.

A particular favorite of mine was when Benanti took on the now timeless standard :”Send in the Clowns” with a sweet lyrical deep heart. The room was a hush as she sang. She made it her own.

An arrangement by Todd Almond of “Our Love is Here to Stay” matched with “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” became a bumpy lovers’ journey that was easily understood. She also sang Almond’s own ballad “Take Good Care of Me,” written in honor of his father.

Benanti told tales about her journey to Broadway from a North Jersey high school as a musical geek in love with Rosemary Clooney and Fosca from Sondheim’s Passion. She brought zest with fabulous tales, even if only half true, of working with Patti LuPone who called her “Doll.” She was simply fearless chatting about her three marriages. Discussing her stage-fright taking on the role of Maria making the hills come alive in The Sound of Music, when she was eighteen, was a visual delight. And who knew that power bars were her intermission snack of choice.

Singer and actress Laura Benanti. Photo by Carolyn Cole
Singer and actress Laura Benanti. Photo by Carolyn Cole

And she did not displease by speaking of her current viral hit on the Internet. She was a vivacious storyteller describing how folk from the Stephen Colbert show asked her to impersonate Melania Trump. She didn’t do the sketch, but it was an interesting tale to hear.

The evening with Laura Benanti ending all too quickly. One last moment was a beauty. Benanti called up the a number of performers from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington as she spoke of her uncle being one of the founders. The group (with Benanti looking on from the wings) did a wondrous acapella version of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” leaving the audience in rapt silence.

The audience left talking about how energized they felt, how happy they were, and how thankful they were to be there. I was awestruck by Benanti’s multi-talented performance.

Running Time: 80 minutes, without an intermission.

Laura Benanti Tales from Soprano Isle was performed on October 28 and 29, 2016 at The Barns at Wolf Trap – 1635 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future events at Wolf Trap, visit their calendar of events.

Laura Benanti in She Loves Me: