REVIEW: LAURA BENANTI HEADLINES BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY’S ANNUAL GALA

Laura BenantiEvery summer, Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts hosts a gala.

This hotly ticketed event raises funds for two of the renowned theater company’s most important programs, the Playwright Mentoring Project and the New Works Initiative. They focus on providing an artistic home for participants and lifting up the voices of under-served youth across Berkshire County. Shows that have been introduced to the world as a result of these programs include the eagerly anticipated American Son, which will have its Broadway premiere this fall; its all-star cast boasts the likes of Kerry WashingtonSteven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan.

On July 23, BSC’s 24th Annual Gala was headlined by the extraordinarily talented Tony Award winner (and 5-time nominee) Laura Benanti. Along with her musical director Todd Almond, Benanti brought her marvelously audacious one-woman show, Tales From Soprano Isle, to the Berkshires for one exceptional night only.

Benanti opened her set with “She Loves Me in 15 Minutes,” a condensed version of the beloved musical that interspersed the show’s biggest numbers with a hilarious SparkNotes-like summary of the plot. As she sang the musical’s biggest highlights (including ones that her character didn’t perform in the acclaimed 2016 Broadway revival that she starred in), the soprano wasted no time in introducing the audience to the pitch perfect high notes that have catapulted her into a musical theater superstar. While “Vanilla Ice Cream” marked the medley’s showstopper, Benanti’s entire performance showcased her two major strengths: a big voice and an equally big sense of humor.

In fact, Benanti is as brilliant a comedienne as she is a vocalist. Of course, this is no secret to those who have seen her scintillating appearances as Melania Trump on Late Night with Stephen Colbert– a recurring role that has generated a stream of viral sensations since 2016. Not since Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin has a comedic impersonation of a political figure penetrated the cultural zeitgeist on such a massive scale while remaining so consistently spot-on.

“I’m not going to assume what your political leanings are,” Benanti told her audience while getting ready to perform as Melania. “Assume!” cried out someone from an orchestra seat. “You know what they say about assumptions,” she swiftly replied with a smile. “I don’t get paid.”

“Regardless of your political beliefs, I think we can all agree that Melania never expected to be First Lady of the United States,” Benanti continued. “Gold toilets? Yes. But the White House?” Then, it was as though she flipped a switch that instantaneously transformed her accent and Blue Steel pout into her now signature impression of the Obama birther conspiracy theory propagator.

As Melania, Benanti performed a rendition of “Send in the Clowns” that—yes, there’s no other way of saying it– brought the house down. This time plagiarizing Sondheim’s melody and refrain, her Melania retooled the lyrics to apply them to herself – including zingers about self-imprisonment, wealth, and Kellyanne Conway. Benanti’s comedic instincts, timing and writing seamlessly came together in this standout song – as clearly evidenced by the rapturous applause and fervent whistle blowing that immediately followed its final note.

Always quick on her feet, Benanti is at her best when playing off the energy of a live audience. Whether it’s saying, “God bless you” to a sneezing audience member in the middle of a song or finding a clever way to incorporate someone else’s ringing cell phone into her performance, her constant adlibbing adeptly demonstrated her ability to command the stage.

Taking the audience on a musical journey through her illustrious career, Benanti not only underlined her impeccable skills as a raconteur, but she also provided rare insights into what it was like behind the scenes when she was working on some of the best-known shows of the past two decades.

She recalled her Broadway debut in the 1998 production of The Sound of Music, when at only 18, she played Maria von Trapp’s understudy. When the show’s star went on a two-week vacation, Benanti was finally ready to take center stage as the world’s favorite former nun. Yet despite all of her confidence and excitement, nothing had prepared her for her first panic attack. It occurred a mere seconds before she was to run out on stage with her arms stretched out wide (àla the iconic Julie Andrews pose) for the opening number on her first night.

Benanti then sang “The Sound of Music” exactly as she did during that harrowing inaugural performance – with her arms locked above her head, profusely shaking, mock wiping sweat from her armpits, stammering her words while keeping her face lit with a full deer-in-headlights expression. Watching Benanti reclaim what was truly a traumatic experience into a master class of physical comedy was as inspiring as it was hysterical.

Similarly, Benanti shared two amazing stories about her frequent collaborator and Broadway legend, Patti LuPone. In the first, Benanti was playing the role of Louise (for which she won a Tony Award) opposite LuPone in Gypsy. When they first met, Benanti was nearly starving herself for her role. LuPone asked her to get drinks after rehearsal, and – like any young actor spending one-on-one time with PATTI LUPONE would do – Benanti ordered the same as her co-star: two double vodkas with lime. The next morning, she couldn’t remember anything beyond the first 45 minutes of her night out and woke up fully clothed in her apartment shower with the water pouring down on her. “What happened to you?” asked her alarmed then husband when he found her. “Patti LuPone,” Benanti deadpanned.

In her second LuPone story, Benanti took us back to the 2010 production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. At one point in the musical, she was to descend to the audience in a harness attached to the ceiling. During one performance, she broke her pelvis executing this stunt and passed out. When she came to, LuPone was holding a bag of ice on her crotch. “What happened?” Benanti asked her co-star. “Doll, you broke your vagina!”

But the night wasn’t entirely full of laughs. Before announcing her final song (and quipping, “Oh, you’ll be fine” to the cumulative groans from the audience that the show was ending), Benanti told a heartwarming story about her mother. She recalled how as a little girl, the moment that made her realize that her mother had an individual identity aside from “mom” was when she caught her singing Kander and Ebb’s “A Quiet Thing” on their staircase.

This scene in Benanti’s youth also opened her eyes to the enormous sacrifice that her mother made. She set her passion for performing aside to raise her and her sister. Today, Benanti and her mother Linda regularly tour their mother-daughter concerts all around the country.

Laura BenantiIn a tribute to both her mother and to her year-and-a-half old daughter, Benanti closed her set with a stunning acapella take on “A Quiet Thing.” As she sat without a microphone and with her legs dangling from the edge of the stage, Benanti filled the theater from wall to wall with her gorgeous voice. It was easily the cherry on top of an already unforgettable evening.

To call the Annual Gala a success for Barrington Stage Company would be a massive understatement. This year, they raised a record-breaking $140,000 ($100,000 of which will go towards the Playwright Mentoring Project).

“Thank you for supporting live theater,” Benanti told the crowd. She expressed that in these times wherein so many people are dismissed as “other,” the unparalleled sense of community, empathy and understanding live theater can provide is of the utmost importance.

And with that she took a final bow … along with the giant bouquet of flowers off of the piano.


With her exquisite voice, humor, and storytelling, Laura Benanti puts on a must-see show. Don’t miss Tales from Soprano Isle, touring across the United States this summer!

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE Q&A WITH CHEYENNE JACKSON

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This fall, Cheyenne Jackson will show off a brand new and dark side of himself as one of the leads of the upcoming fifth installation of American Horror Story opposite Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer.

After successful recurring roles on shows like Glee and 30 Rock, the acclaimed 39-year-old actor is no stranger to television. He’s also appeared in 18 films, such as United 93, Love Is Strange, and Lola Versus. His diverse career consists of eight Broadway shows, including the original productions of All Shook Up, Xanadu and Finian’s Rainbow. And on top of all that, his voice has been featured on a dozen different albums, including a recently Grammy nominated West Side Story recording with the San Francisco Symphony.

But before he gets to work on the top secret American Horror Story, Jackson will return to his stage roots for a headlining concert at New York’s revered Town Hall venue on Friday, June 12 (buy tickets here). I caught up with Cheyenne about this upcoming show, his plans to return to Broadway and release a new album, this weekend’s Tony Awards, his love for Taylor Swift, and more.

NAGORSKI: What is a distinguishing characteristic about your Town Hall show on June 12 that will make it differ from your previous concerts?

JACKSON: It’s my last big show before I begin 8 months of American Horror Story so it’s kind of the “best of” all of my different shows. It’ll include my favorites and songs people have often requested.

What will the ratio of covers to original music be?

5 to 1 I’m guessing.

CheyenneAlso performing at the show will be Laura Benanti. What made you choose her as the one to share your stage with? And will you be performing any music together or will these be completely separate sets?

She’s a great friend and we’ve only done one show together and I just really wanted to sing with her again. We’ll be singing together.

Is this a one-off show or do you have more touring plans through the rest of the year?

One off. This is it for a long time so I’m going to go big.

Do you have any plans for a follow-up solo album to 2013’s I’m Blue, Skies?

Yes! The album is half done, I’m just trying to make myself sit down and finish!

Earlier this year, you released the charity single, “Find The Best of Me.” How did you initially get involved with amfAR and what made this the perfect song to release as a benefit for them?

I’ve been an ambassador for amfAR for 8 years. I love them so much and when Dan and Laura Curtis asked me to sing a song for charity, it was a no brainier.

Currently, what/who are the most played albums and artists on your iPod?

I could lie and pick something super cool, but honestly if I look at my most played, it’s an even mix of Broadway, top 40, some obscure jazz, and opera. Taylor Swift is in there too.  Sue me, she makes good music.

Recently, you had a residency at Café Carlyle, where you covered Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory.” What can you tell us about working with her on American Hotel Story: Hotel and is there anything that you can tease/share about your character on the show?

I could tell you details about American Horror Story but then I’d have to kill you with Lady Gaga’s meat dress.

Belated congratulations on your wedding! How will you and Jason be celebrating your one year anniversary this September?

Thank you! I’ll be working so we can’t leave town but I’m sure we’ll do something special and chill.

Next February, you’ll be one of the headliners of the Broadway on the High Seas cruise alongside performers such as Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole, Liz Callaway, Judy Kuhn, and more. What are you looking forward to most about this experience and what is the one item you’ll have to take on board to keep you from getting homesick?

Hanging with my peers is what’s the most fun and it’s not long enough of a trip to get homesick.

You’ve often mentioned that 9/11 signified a huge turning point in your life in that it gave you the confidence to become a performer. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?

I innately felt after 9/11 like life was slipping me by, and at 27 I decided to follow my dream of being a professional actor. It made me really feel how precious life is and I went for it.

Do you have any plans to return to Broadway anytime soon? If not, what type of show would be the most attractive to you to lure you back to the Great White Way?

I keep trying! Every year I’m offered something great and I try and make it work but it hasn’t happened yet. I’d love to do something new. I love revivals, but I’ve done enough of those for a while. Somebody write me something!

This year’s Tony Awards are being hosted by Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth on June 7. What or who are you most excited about seeing at the ceremony?

So many! I loved Hand To God, The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time, and On The 20th Century. Hopefully I’ll get to see Fun Home and Something Rotten before the awards.

You have openly spoken about your struggle with alcoholism. What role did music have in your journey to sobriety?

Not an overtly huge one, but definitely a comfort to me and a conduit for expressing my pain.

What have been both the most rewarding and challenging roles you’ve played to date? And what is your dream theatrical role?

Rewarding?  Sonny in Xanadu, Danny in 30 Rock, and Billy in Behind the Candelabra (I only had two lines, but it was extremely rewarding). The most difficult was Mark Bingham in United 93. My dream theatrical role hasn’t been written yet.

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Originally published on PopBytes