BWW Review: LAURA BENANTI LIVE IN LONDON, Cadogan Hall
Tony Award-winning actress Laura Benanti took a quick hiatus from starring in My Fair Lady on Broadway to make her London debut - and those missing out on the former needn't have worried, as she opened with a bravura 15-minute precis of the production, complete with musical highlights. Juxtaposing wry comments on mansplaining, quick changes and visiting the real Covent Garden with soaring vocals, Benanti set the tone for a beguiling show: part concert, part stand-up set.
Engagingly warm and open with fans, sharing details of her personal life - including her hilarious two-year-old daughter - alongside polished performances, this was proper cabaret, demonstrating that Benanti is just as comfortable in her own skin as she is inhabiting a character. It was that rare evening when you looked forward to the chat just as much as the songs, rather than enduring awkward or over-rehearsed filler between numbers.
Among the comic highlights were two outstanding Patti LuPone anecdotes, self-deprecating quips about trotting out her My Fair Lady accent in Britain (the RP was in fact excellent, the cockney...is a nightmare for every actress), a great bit about getting the license for her third marriage at city hall, her nightmare Broadway debut in The Sound of Music, and a little, er, morning sickness-related Easter Egg for viewers of BroadwayHD's She Loves Me livestream...
Benanti also has the stand-up comic's ability to summon a laser-fast ad-lib, turning a brief mic malfunction into divine intervention, merrily heckling latecomers, doing battle with a voluminous dress, and teasing a game couple in the front row. It added to the organic feel of the show, vital to a live experience like this. She also cleverly leavened serious comments with humour - from the fear that sopranos are being belted out of the industry to the vital support for Pride and hard-fought rights in this dire political climate.
Of course, we had plenty of musical theatre too, supported by a stellar band. As well as the charismatic My Fair Lady opener, there was a gorgeous rendition of "Vanilla Ice Cream" from She Loves Me, a sultry, rhythmic "Lovesick" from Women on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and a triumphant climactic "The Sound of Music".
We also got a great fakeout with a collection of "meaningful" songs (read: a hilarious pop medley, featuring, well, lots of songs about butts), plus Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell, and a sweetly soulful rendition of Harry Chapin's "Mr Tanner" - patiently unspooling a poignant tale.
All that, plus the return of the mash-up (Glee didn't quite kill it stone dead), with superb arrangements from Benanti's musical director and pianist Todd Almond. The pair duetted on a heartfelt "Our Love Is Here to Stay"/"Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" combo, Benanti produced a hypnotic airy quality on Lana del Ray's "Starry Eyed"/"Video Games", and the brilliant Almond took the spotlight for a weirdly genius Dolly Parton-meets-Bach number. Tom Lehrer would be proud.
Bianca Del Rio popped in for some fun back-and-forth, and to duet on a White House-themed "Send in the Clowns" - allowing Benanti to reprise her fantastic Melania Trump impression. They made an exuberant double act, but it was oddly short-lived. Perhaps preparation time was a factor with Benanti's My Fair Lady commitments.
A riotous show ended on a sincere note, with Benanti paying tribute to her mother, who put her own career on hold to raise her, and delivering an exquisite version of Kander and Ebb's "A Quiet Thing" - a cappella, and with no mic. Given the incredible acoustics of Cadogan Hall, and Benanti's powerful soprano instrument, that could well have been applied to other numbers, to similarly spine-tingling effect.
But this was, above all, a thoroughly joyful night. And proof, if it were ever needed, that an actress can be frank, funny, feminist, a little bit filthy, and still (to quote) sing like a goddam angel. Come back any time - London loves you!
Laura Benanti: Live in London was at Cadogan Hall on 30 June