BWW Reviews: Laura Benanti Shares Her Brilliant Vocal Talent at 8th Annual Arts by George!
There's more to the annual Arts by George event than simply getting a chance to see and hear a great performer sing although that's certainly a draw. Celebrating those that participate in the arts educational programs at George Mason University, this annual benefit event, now in its 8th year, also provides a way to ensure more students can take advantage of all the school's offerings by raising money for scholarships. An added bonus is that students, donors, and the general public alike can take in a performance from Broadway's best - someone who understands and values arts education and can serve as an inspiration to the students.
This year's star performer was Tony Award winner Laura Benanti who most recently performed here in Washington, DC as part of Barbara Cook's cabaret series at the Kennedy Center. Well known on the Great White Way for her crystal clear soprano voice, she's proved her versatility taking on roles such as Maria in the Sound of Music, Cinderella in Sondheim's Into the Woods, Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy (for which she won the Tony Award), Claudia in Maury Yeston's Nine, and most recently, the slightly vacant though well-intentioned model Candela in David Yazbek's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Throw in her performance as Julia in a stage adaptation of the frothy The Wedding Singer and it's easy to see that she's able to take on more than just the role of the sweet ingénue with the pretty voice.
Her concert performance at George Mason University - a slight adaptation from the one she most recently performed (and recorded) at New York City's fabulous music club 54 Below - likewise more than reflected the fact that her talent runs deep and wide. Although her banter in between the musical numbers came off as slightly over-rehearsed if not forced, it did give the audience insight into the Laura Benanti offstage - the one grew up in the New York/New Jersey area with a diehard love for musicals and old movies that the other kids might not have appreciated and has a bit of an off-kilter sense of self-deprecating humor.
Covering songs from Broadway, a few folk-pop tunes, and recent radio hits, accompanied by her phenom music director Todd Almond and three other local musicians, her eclectic song list thoroughly demonstrated that she can pretty much sing anything and sing it well.
Her well-trained and technically perfect voice soared on songs composed by musical theatre luminaries like Lerner and Loewe's "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" and "On the Street Where You Live" (slightly modified, in this case, to "On the Street Where I Lived" as in the 54 Below concert because Laura once lived a stone's throw from the iconic venue), and Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer's "I'm Old Fashioned." Paint-by-numbers versions of the songs they were not.
However, it was her take on some singer-songwriter fare that really caught my attention. Joni Mitchell's "He Comes for Conversation" and Harry Chapin's "Mr. Tanner" may not be songs that you'd automatically associate with a young performer known for her Broadway musical chops. However, her emotionally resonant renditions of them proved to be the most honest and heartfelt of the evening. It never gets old hearing Laura sing "Mr. Tanner" in particular.
She was also vocally impressive when she stepped away from the microphone to give us a taste of a classically-infused song she most recently performed in The Public Theater's Public Works production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with music by Todd Almond. It always warms my music-loving heart to hear voices in their most natural form in large venues and Laura proved adept at reaching the balcony with ease. Ms. Benanti's performance of Yeston's Unusual Way (a song she performed in Nine) was also noteworthy for not only her impeccable vocals and inviting, warm vocal tone, but her obvious and real connection to the emotion-filled lyrics.