BWW Review: Laura Benanti's Astonishing One Night Only Cabaret at the Sarasota Opera House
"College theatre students should watch this and learn how to do a cabaret act. Because this is how you do it." --Heard in line after Laura Benanti's cabaret
I didn't want to leave. I was so relaxed and in heaven, listening to funny tales and self-deprecating encounters of a young life on Broadway, that I didn't want it to end. But George Harrison once wrote a song (and titled his album) "All Things Must Pass," and I know that that includes all good things too. So when this particular show was over, I had to accept that it was now relegated to my memory. But I experienced such euphoria at what I had just witnessed, it felt like I was floating as I exited the Sarasota Opera House.
For one night only on September 21st, Tony Award Winner Laura Benanti entertained the packed opera house in a memorable, extraordinarily fun cabaret (put on by the Sarasota Opera House in association with Cabaret by the Bay). It wasn't a tour of Broadway, or modern hits, or pop ballads of the past (though the show did include them); it was actually a tour of Mr. Benanti's charmed life, without the seriousness or the self-aggrandizement that that suggests. Motherhood, Broadway openings, rookie theatre stories, marriage license tales, and the childhood memories of a musical theatre prodigy/outsider sticking out in her neighborhood like a Maggie Smith nun at an XXXTentacion concert...we got all of this, and Patti Lupone bon mots to boot. It was relaxed, unpretentious, and exceedingly likable.
When I left the theatre, floating, so many words and phrases came to mind that summarize Ms. Benanti. Quirky. Ultra-talented. Razor smart. But the one word I think that best sums her up is...genuine. She came across as the real thing, no b.s., natural and at ease in her skin. Genuine.
Dressed in red, she was appealing and laid back. It was just her, a stool, some glasses of water, and Steven Freeman on piano. "I apologize for my hair," she told the rapt audience immediately, humorously alluding to what the Florida weather had done to her. "Business on the right," she said, showing the right side of her head. "Party on the left." In some ways, that pretty much exemplifies who Ms. Belanti is as a performer...the party-fun side mixed in with the business-talent side. Goofiness and poignancy. And we got to experience both sides (now) of those.
Her first routine was the let's-get-She Loves Me-out-of-the-way-early set. She walked the audience through the classic musical (where she had played Amalia on Broadway) in about 15 minutes. Yes, we heard her more iconic songs ("Dear Friend" and the signature "Vanilla Ice Cream"), but the biggest jolt came from her singing a song relegated to Georg in the show: "Tonight at Eight," which she performed with gusto. Since She Loves Me is one of my all-time favorite musicals, I didn't want this to end with just three songs. I yearned for more--maybe "Will He Like Me?" or even a take on the title song (retitled "He Loves Me"), but that was not to be. Still, with her "Dear Friend" and "Vanilla Ice Cream," she erased all thoughts of Barbara Cook and made those songs, some of the loveliest in musical theatre history, her very own. (After her "Vanilla Ice Cream," I wrote a single word in my notebook: "WOW!"). Even though I personally wanted to stay stranded on the She Loves Me island, there was a packed house to contend with (not just my selfish wonts), so we had to move on to other songs and stories.
She apologized jokingly to the opera singers of the past who had performed in the Sarasota Opera House because she sang a B-flat with a microphone. She imagined them all commanding a collective, "Get Out!" (Thankfully she didn't listen to those imaginary voices.)
She walked us through her unique childhood, singing Stephen Sondheim's Follies at age 11 and dressing as a character from Passion for Halloween. She talked about singing "One More Kiss" from Follies at an audition (but Ms. Belanti got one fact wrong: She told us "One More Kiss" was not to be mistaken with "One Last Kiss" from Grease, although the "One Last Kiss" she was alluding to is actually from Bye Bye Birdie). All of this led to her understudying Maria in The Sound of Music on Broadway at the ripe old age of eighteen. (She played opposite Richard Chamberlain, who she said slyly, "was not eighteen.").
One of the highlights of the night came with her re-creation of her opening night as Maria, singing "The Sound of Music," re-enacting each awkward hand motion, the flop sweat, the shaking limbs, ending with her arms stuck over her head like a member of the Village People creating the "M" in "YMCA." It's the funniest version of "The Sound of Music" I've ever heard (or seen).
The most touching moments of the cabaret occurred when Ms. Benanti discussed life with her 19-month-old daughter, Ella Rose. Ms. Benanti will be performing her dream role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady next month, but she could have had the chance to open the part on Broadway a year ago, but motherhood took over. Eliza is such a tough part, and Ms. Benanti made the instant decision not to be away for her daughter's infant years. This touched so many of our hearts, and we realized that Ms. Benanti is not just one of Broadway's best talent-wise, her head and her heart are in the right place. Fame and accolades won't blind her from the bigger picture--the love of her family.
Lucky for us, we even got to see a sneak-peak of her future work in My Fair Lady with an astonishing "I Could Have Danced All Night." (I wrote in my notebook: "I could have listened to Ms. Benanti all night!")
She sang two Joni Mitchell songs, the first dedicated to life with her daughter ("Both Sides Now") and the second ("Conversations") which was incredibly moving.
It was an eclectic grouping of songs, to say the least. She knocked the sultry, zesty and sexy "Lovesick" from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown out of the ballpark, and brought us back down to earth with a swinging, bouncy rendition of Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay." Her relaxed, unselfconscious patter throughout made it seem like an intimate get-together, talking to friends over a few drinks.
One of my favorite songs of the night was Mr. Benanti's take on Harry Chapin's "Mr. Tanner." The lyrics resonated, and the love of music and the gift of giving that love to audiences could have been about Ms. Benanti herself: "Music was his life, it was not his livelihood/And it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good/And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul..."
A hilarious moment of the cabaret occurred with a mash-up of songs that you would never have thought belonged together: "Single Ladies," "Ol' Man River," "I Got You, Babe," "Fat Bottomed Girls," "Baby Got Back" ("I like big butts..."), "Respect" and a rousing "Proud Mary" complete with tambourine. It was quirky, hilarious, all over the place, a wonderful hot mess, and simply sensational.
She talked about how impressed she was with the area, and how happy she was that Sarasota was such a strong friend of the arts. "Maybe I'll bring the whole family and just move here," she said to thunderous applause.
One of the last songs she sang was "Something Good" from The Sound of Music. It was an appropriate choice, and although in the show it is sung by Maria and the Captain, it brought on a different meaning here. It was a love song, yes, but from a performer at the top of her game serenading an audience that was adoring her: "For here you are, standing there, loving me/Whether or not you should/But somewhere in my youth or childhood/I must have done something good..."
Make no mistake, what Ms. Benanti brought to that Sarasota Opera House stage was far more than just something good; it was something great.