You can’t pin Laura Benanti down. Her shape-shifting sense of humor is immediately enchanting, but it turns out to be her secret weapon. She can feel like a goofy sister and then you blink and she’s breaking your heart. She’s dry and deadpan and then she’s full-throat laughing at something sad that happened to her. It’s disarming in the best way and the key to unlocking her talent. Her many facets keep the ground shifting and keep us from putting her in a box. It’s what makes her a great actor. By constantly surprising, she makes it seem like she can do anything.
In her Diamond Series residency at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Benanti is not necessarily playing a character, but she’s still using her chameleonic arsenal to draw us in. Though she made her name singing soprano ingenues, she mostly focuses on jazz-inflected arrangements from her eponymous studio album released during the pandemic. The song choices come from many different avenues, but merge into a coherent sound via arrangements by Gil Goldstein (who accompanies Benanti on piano) and her own unifying vocal prowess.
Benanti sings Rufus Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” as an ode to decadence, acknowledging the “little bit harmful” nature of over-indulging in vices, but celebrating the pleasures they bring. She talks about how she first heard Burt Bacharach’s “Wives and Lovers” – a song about cleaning up your house, and yourself, before your husband gets home – and thought it was a parody before her mother explained that you are supposed to take it seriously. During an instrumental break, she pulls faces and mimes vacuuming. The remarkable thing, though, is that Benanti manages to do all these comedy bits while still sounding incredible. Her focus on the quality of singing is not depleted by the extra business; it only adds to it.
Also from her album, Benanti performs a cover of the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” that hits a nice jazzy groove and electrifies the room with her version of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” The Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim song “The Boy From…” has not aged well in its slightly problematic Latin jokes, but Benanti chooses to focus the humor on the singer’s inability to acknowledge that the man she’s singing about might be gay. I’ve never heard the line “Why are his trousers vermillion?” get such a laugh before.
Benanti gives her two back-up singers their own moments to shine as well. She takes a stool at the side of the stage as Miranda Ferris Jones and Brandon Michael Nasse each grab the mic for two shattering performances. Jones sang Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Feeling Good” inspired by Nina Simone’s iconic recording. Jones, like Simone, has a rich, deeply textured voice that brings out the melody in distinctive ways. Nasse takes on Kurt Elling and Carla Bley’s “Endless Lawns”, a song that starts off gently with a repeating, lulling melody line and then expands out from there to allow Nasse to let his voice loose. And what a voice it is. He has impeccable tone and phrasing and did not overuse his powerful instrument, instead letting it simmer, boil over, and then come back down. It was a masterful piece of singing. It’s a gift that Benanti de-centers herself to let these two rising talents show us a little of what they can do.
She does sing some musical theatre at the end of the set, in jazz arrangements that feel tied into the album. Taking us through some of the highlights of her career, she hits on “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady and “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me. In Kelli O’Hara’s Diamond Series concert the week before, O’Hara sang a tribute to the late Rebecca Luker and Benanti does that here, too. Benanti talks about being hired as Luker’s understudy when she was still in high school and how Luker took her under her wing and made her feel welcome. She performs a gorgeous rendition of the title song from The Sound of Music in Luker’s memory.
Feinstein’s/54 Below has been achieving something special with the Diamond Series so far. Both O’Hara and Benanti offered heartfelt, personal shows that let the audience in. They both entertained and moved us in a way that is only achievable in the intimacy of 54 Below’s basement. I am looking forward to seeing how Megan Hilty adds to this brief, but substantial lineage in a few weeks.