Laura Benanti at 54 Below: In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention

By Steven Suskin
24 May 2013

Laura Benanti
Laura Benanti
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Laura Benanti—a Tony Award winner for her appearance as the title character in the 2008 revival of Gypsy, more recently seen in In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown—starts her engagement at 54 Below with a lovely and upbeat rendition of Jerome Kern & Johnny Mercer's "I'm Old Fashioned."

During the musical interlude, she pulls out her iPhone, sends a text, and photographs the people at the front table before resuming her pristine rendition of the song. That pretty much describes Benanti: a multi-talented Broadway soprano with the soul of a wacky comedienne.

After a mellow "My Time of Day" (from Guys and Dolls), Benanti explains that as a child she lived on the very same block as nightclub, riding her tricycle down 54th Street and singing the songs from Annie as loudly as she could in the buildings' stairwells. Hence, "On the Street Where I Lived." She then moves on to more pop material, noting that she can foresee a future when Broadway thrushes like Melissa Errico, Audra McDonald and Kelli O'Hara are relegated to a desert island, fated to endlessly sing "Glitter and Be Gay."

Benanti's patter amusingly describes a true theatre geek; at fourteen, she dressed up for Halloween as Sondheim's Fosca, singing "I Read to Live" to anyone who would listen. Trick or treat, anyone?



Next came what she calls "a mashup" of Ellie Goulding’s “Starry Eyed” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” followed by Joni Mitchell's "He Comes for Conversation" (which was every bit as effective as her "I'm Old Fashioned"). Benanti glides through the act with ease despite some questionable song choices along the way. Music director Todd Almond and his three-piece band play well, but Almond, who is an up-and-coming theatre composer, has also provided three songs that might be interesting but don't exactly help propel a cabaret evening. Benanti counters with a crowdpleasing antidote: a demented medley which somehow mixes Kern and Hammerstein's "Ol' Man River" with Aretha Franklin's "Respect." ("That's the dumbest thing I've ever done," she comments to roars of laughter.)

After "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" (from Gigi) and an effective rendering of Harry Chapin's "Mr. Tanner," Benanti returns to familiar ground with two of her Broadway showstoppers. First comes Maury Yeston's "Unusual Way," which is as stunning as when she sang it in the 2003 revival of Nine. (This provides the opportunity for an anecdote about her supportive cast mate, Chita Rivera.) The act is capped by David Yazbek's "Model Behavior," Benanti's uproarious telephone song from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Laura Benanti plays three more performances at 54 Below, May 24 at 8:30 PM and May 25 at 8:30 and 11 PM.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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Karrin Allyson, Rita Wilson, LaChanze and Laura Benanti
Photo by Monica Simoes