Review: Laura Benanti in Concert at the Lesher Center for the Arts Delivered Heart, Humor and High Notes

The Tony Award-winner performed her wildly entertaining show in Walnut Creek on June 25th

By: Jun. 29, 2022
Review: Laura Benanti in Concert at the Lesher Center for the Arts Delivered Heart, Humor and High Notes
Review: Laura Benanti in Concert at the Lesher Center for the Arts Delivered Heart, Humor and High Notes
Performer Laura Benanti
(photo by Jenny Anderson)

In this current Golden Age for musical theater sopranos (see Audra McDonald, Kelli O'Hara and Kristin Chenoweth just for starters), what really sets Laura Benanti apart is her uncanny ease in front of an audience. While it is an unmitigated pleasure to experience Ms. Benanti's talents in a fully-staged musical truly inhabiting a character's emotional journey and trilling out high notes like nobody's business, she is equally wonderful just being herself onstage. Benanti has such a natural rapport with the audience that it feels like she is inviting us into her world with a spirit of "Come on, let's have some fun together!"

During her recent show at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, Benanti was in top form from the moment she hit the stage, looking smashing in a form-fitting orange cocktail dress appliqued with sparkly, multi-colored flowers. Her opening gambit was what she called "My Fair Lady in 15 Minutes or Less" where she revisited the high points of her recent Broadway turn in her dream role of Eliza Doolittle, with cheeky patter to connect the dots between songs and fill in the plot for anyone not already familiar with it. We got to hear shortened versions of all of her big numbers, including "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "Show Me" and of course "I Could Have Danced All Night," impeccably sung in Benanti's crystalline, goosebump-inducing soprano, including all the optional high notes, thank you very much. There is something insanely thrilling about a soprano who knows she's got the goods and can't wait to deliver them. When Benanti's voice soars into the stratosphere, it's because it naturally wants to go there.

Not that the show was only about the gleaming high notes. Far from it. Benanti offered an emotionally complex interpretation of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" in a gorgeous arrangement by her music director and accompanist Todd Almond that subtly investigated every ambivalent harmony in that classic song. A self-described old soul, Benanti also took a deep dive into the American songbook with a fascinating intertwining of the Gershwin's "Love Is Here to Stay" and Irving Berlin's "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me" performed as a duet with Almond.

And then there were the humorous bits, lots of 'em. Benanti offered comedic takes on familiar songs - such as her gimlet-eyed version of that paean to male chauvinism "Wives and Lovers" and her hilarious, spot-on impression of Melania Trump doing "Send in the Clowns." A tongue-in-cheek medley of R&B songs started with Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" sung with the plummy diction of a classical soprano before heading into all manner of unexpected territory, culminating in a surprisingly effective "Respect" and "Proud Mary," complete with Tina Turner shimmying.

When that particular display of calisthenics and vocal pyrotechnics left her understandably a bit winded, Benanti ceded the spotlight for the only time in the 90-minute show to her "music husband." Almond performed a mashup of Dolly Parton's "He's Going to Marry Me" and "Jolene" set to accompaniment by J.S. Bach (yes, you read that correctly). It was by turns sweet, silly, wistful and wildly romantic. A perfect celebration of Pride month.

And then there were Benanti's numerous hilarious tales from her experiences in showbiz threaded throughout the evening. Her re-enactment of making her first entrance in the role of Maria in The Sound of Music on Broadway at the tender age of 18 was a manic gem, as stage fright took temporary possession of her entire body. And of course, once those jitters subsided, she went on to deliver an exhilarating rendition of the famous title song. What makes Benanti's stories so disarming is the way she locates the truth behind the comedy so that we can identify with her various mishaps.

Benanti saved her best trick for last. After delivering an anguished, sultry "Stormy Weather" in tribute to Judy Garland that showed off her bluesy chest voice, she did a complete 180 by moving down to the lip of the stage for an unadorned rendition of Kander & Ebb's "A Quiet Thing," sung acapella and unmiked. As her stunning soprano gently wafted through the theater, it felt like a personal message she was sending out to each one of us in the audience, and you could have heard a pin drop. In short, sheer magic.