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BWW Review: Tony Award Winner Laura Benanti Debuts Beguiling Solo Cabaret Concert at OC's Segerstrom Center

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With gorgeous vocals interspersed with hilarious quips, Benanti gave an unforgettable 'loverly' evening of songs and stories.

BWW Review: Tony Award Winner Laura Benanti Debuts Beguiling Solo Cabaret Concert at OC's Segerstrom Center

With all the bad crap happening in our world today, it's nice to think that we are also so lucky to live in a world where someone like Tony Award winner Laura Benanti exists and is given a platform to share her talent---from stages across the world to the big and small screen.

Fortunately for Broadway and musical theater fans parked in Orange County, one of those platforms opened up for her to (finally!) perform a solo concert here on the West Coast at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts as part of their 2021-2022 Cabaret Season. Originally scheduled back in September, the wait was worth it to hear her sing selections from her roles on Broadway and a few tracks from her 2020 self-titled studio album. The three-night engagement continues through Saturday, November 13, 2021 at the Center's Samueli Theatre.

For the intimate cabaret set, Benanti was joined on stage by hardworking accompanist Charles Santoro behind the piano and back-up vocalist---and an occasional incredible soloist himself---Brandon Michael Nase. Benanti took just two very short breaks during her intermission-less concert to give Nase a chance to showcase his own remarkable talents as well.

Along with her Tony Award-winning role as Louise in the 2008 revival of GYPSY opposite Patti LuPone, Benanti's Broadway credits include making her Broadway debut in the 1998 revival of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, as Cinderella in the 2002 revival of INTO THE WOODS, as Julia in 2006's stage musical adaptation of THE WEDDING SINGER, as Candela in 2010's stage musical adaptation of WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, as Amalia Balash in the 2016 revival of SHE LOVES ME, and most recently as Eliza Doolittle in the 2018 revival of MY FAIR LADY.

She also, at least for one day, did some convincing cosplay at New York's Time Square as Fosca from the Stephen Sondheim musical PASSION.

As a longtime fan of Benanti's entire body of work, hearing her sing live and in person, especially here at such a close, intimate, candlelit setting, the experience was truly thrilling. Benanti is a gifted soprano and musical theater interpreter, instinctually possessing a remarkable blend of legit, technical singing, with emotional acting depth, and even, at times, biting, witty humor. While Broadway audiences know Benanti from her consistent excellence on stage, many beyond the footlights have gotten to know her for her comedy stylings, too (if you've missed her take on Melania Trump during several guest spots on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, get thee to YouTube immediately).

Which is possibly why in my decade-plus-long gig of covering theater and theater-related projects in Orange County for BWW, her one-woman cabaret concert was, hands down, the most enjoyable cabaret program I have ever experienced at the Samueli Theatre since they started hosting this kind of series.

Part uproarious stand-up comedy act, and part beguiling Broadway/Jazz concert, the quick witted and down-right hilarious Benanti not only showcased her flawless powerhouse vocals (I want to say that she was hitting notes higher than anyone I have ever heard at this space), she also provided some of the funniest asides and quips all evening in between her music stylings. Throughout the night, she had pretty much a funny remark at the ready for almost everything that happened in her life and, heck, that evening---she's obviously a natural with improv, comedic timing, and joke execution.

Full disclosure: when she began listing her Broadway credits to the audience, it was me who yelped out a lone, very excitedly high-pitch "wooHOO!" that pierced the quiet attentiveness in the room. My outburst seemed like a genuine surprise for Benanti, who paused her speech to thank the source of that "hoot."

"Wow, maybe some of you are owls---this is California after all, you're basically nature," she declared. "Thank you to that one owl who appreciates my work!" (You're very welcome, Ms. Benanti!)

As one would expect, the "hoots" from owls multiplied as the evening progressed.

Of course, the audience---whether they were familiar or unfamiliar with Benanti---got a glimpse of what kind of evening they were about to experience early on. As the show began, we hear a lady's voice announcing Benanti's show. Who was the voice? Why it was Benanti herself speaking her own intro, poking a bit of fun on the convention and herself in the process. She's an expert at dry, witty humor and this intro was no exception.

"...presenting one-time Tony Award winner and five-time Tony Award loser..." she began dryly. "And, yes, she's doing her own introduction..."

Ha! Her aim for her show, she confessed, was simple: give the audience an entertaining show filled with funny, quirky songs with equally comedic anecdotes to go with them. And judging from the prolonged laughs and audible "wow"s from the audience, she definitely met her goal.

Dressed in a long, floor-length floral dress, Benanti was greeted with huge cheers and applause.

"I haven't been on a plane in two years, you guys!" she beamed. "I miss performing in front of an actual audience so much!"

She began the concert, appropriately enough, with the first track from her 2020 studio album, the jazzy "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk." She followed it with another jazz track from her album, the sultry-turned-amusing "Wives and Lovers" which she dedicated to her husband and daughter.

Many of her funny interludes throughout the night involved being a mother to daughter Ella, whom Benanti gushed over with stories that made her both very proud (Ella shushed Justin Timberlake to be quiet during a Broadway show) and a little exasperated (like Ella nonchalantly commenting that mother badly needed to put on make up). She even shared a touching story of Ella's relationship with her MY FAIR LADY co-star, the legendary Rosemary Harris, who often had regular lunches together backstage.

As effortlessly funny as Benanti is, she can also make a song sound heart wrenching and deeply emotional, as demonstrated in the torch song "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life" as well as in her final songs in the show, "The Party's Over" and her touching encore "A Quiet Thing."

But perhaps the night's most brilliant highlight was her suite of songs from Lerner and Loewe's MY FAIR LADY, the Broadway musical that she headlined back in 2019, when she replaced the departing Lauren Ambrose in the role of Eliza Doolittle, the cockney-accented street flower peddler who becomes part of a gentleman's wager to see if she can be successfully transformed into a proper English lady. Taking on the role in the Lincoln Center revival was a dream come true for Benanti, even if director Bartlett Sher originally wanted her to audition ("How rude!" Benanti deadpans). But motherhood responsibilities would not have made it work during the show's first year, but a year later, with Ella older, she could finally say yes (sans auditioning this time... offer only, natch).

"I'm going to attempt to do MY FAIR LADY for all of you in 15 minutes or less!" she declared proudly.

And, boy, did she do an amazing job. She sped through the story in lightning speed---of course, sprinkled with her own hilarious asides---then offered meaty, gorgeously recreated snippets of songs from the show: "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "Just You Wait," "The Rain In Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night, "Show Me," and "Without You." This entire sequence was worth the price of admission alone, where we all got a taste of how she sounded in the role on Broadway.

Understandably, she needed to catch her breath after that, so she took a break to give her back-up singer Nase---who was recently seen in the First National Tour of the CATS revival---a chance to showcase his own talents by belting the MAN FROM FROM LA MANCHA classic "Impossible Dream" (later in the show, Nase wows once again with a powerful song from SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS).

Benanti then sang "The Boy From..."---also another track from her album---her own parody of "The Boy From Ipanema" which she dubbed hilariously as The Laura Benanti Story, because the playful, tongue-twisting lyrics dramatizes a woman's understandable confusion developing a crush on an obviously gay man.

My favorite anecdote from the night though is Benanti's beautiful, touching tribute to her friend and mentor Rebecca Luker, who sadly passed away after battling A.L.S./Lou Gehrig's disease last year. 18-year-old Benanti understudied Rebecca's role of Maria in the 1998 Broadway revival of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

"She always said it was 'our' role, which I found very kind," Benanti recalled, fighting back tears as she spoke lovingly about Luker. Benanti remembered seeing Luker in the audience with tears of pride and joy as she watched Benanti doing the role on Broadway after Luker had departed the show. She dedicated a flawless "The Sound of Music" to Luker, which ended with thunderous applause.

I was overjoyed, though, when she decided to include singing the adorably euphoric "Vanilla Ice Cream" which her character Amalia sings in SHE LOVES ME, the Broadway revival she starred in in 2016 opposite Zachary Levi. As expected, more "owls" hooted and hollered their approval.

Her final encore of an exquisite "A Quiet Thing,"---sung a cappella and without a microphone---was a wonderful capper to a magical evening. She dedicated the song to her mother, with whom she has sung this as a duet before.

All I can say is that I hope this owl has more opportunities in the future to be "hooting" for her. That show was just incredible.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photo courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

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Laura Benanti's performances continue through November 13, 2021. Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2021-2022 Broadway-centric Cabaret Series continues with "John Lloyd Young's Broadway" on December 15-17, 2021, followed by Jane Lynch & Kate Flannery (January 27-29, 2022), Tony Yazbeck (March 24-26, 2022), and Caissie Levy (May 19-21, 2022). Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am) located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

(Editiorial Note: this review has been updated since first published to correct an error)


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