Every 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 Washington, Steven 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.
In 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.
Originally published on PopBytes