Laura Benanti: Tales From Soprano Isle
The Tony Award winner makes her Café Carlyle debut.
What is Soprano Isle? Laura Benanti imagines it to be a place where she and all her fellow sopranos will be exiled some day, a dystopian homeland for the coloratura where a multitude of divas will compete for the services of just one personal assistant (take note, Andy Cohen). Benanti brings her outsize and delightfully strange imagination to her Café Carlyle debut, Tales from Soprano Isle, a show guaranteed to dazzle and surprise.
She enters the dining room wearing a bright-red dress and announces, "I'm going to perform a 15-minute version of She Loves Me." Benanti recently starred opposite Zachary Levi in the Broadway revival of the Bock and Harnick musical. She gives us major plot points between stage-ready renditions of her big songs: A jubilant "Tonight at 8," an achingly sad "Dear Friend," and a giddy "Vanilla Ice Cream." This one-woman version of a big Broadway musical is an audacious way to start the show, but Benanti is an undoubtedly audacious performer.
While Benanti (a Tony Award winner for Gypsy) is best known to theater audiences as a leading lady with a voice straight out of Broadway's golden age, her song selections for this evening veer decidedly toward the world of folk. She sings a gorgeous version of Harry Chapin's "Remember When the Music" and two numbers by Joni Mitchell. On "Carey," she delivers a near-perfect imitation of Mitchell's lofty head voice. Her interpretation of "Both Sides Now" is tender and sincere.
The serious song selection is offset by Benanti's quirky and self-effacing sense of humor. Occasionally, the two blend together in an oddly intoxicating mix, as when the visibly pregnant Benanti sings Tori Amos' "Take to the Sky" while gyrating and banging on a drum. It's sexy and fierce and ever-so-slightly menacing. Has the Carlyle ever felt so primal? Doubtful.
Throughout the show, Benanti easily harmonizes with music director Todd Almond, a highly expressive vocalist in his own right. With understated grace, his voice seems to float just beneath hers. They perform a seamless glissando on the word "sea" during Almond's original love song "Take Good Care of Me," illustrating the beautiful lyrics with their musicality. The addition of just one more talented instrumentalist (bassist Brian Ellingson) provides a rich and resonant accompaniment to the vocals that feels perfectly sufficient for Café Carlyle.
Jumping from sacred to profane without hesitation, Benanti really gives the Carlyle's ASCAP license a workout with a medley of pop songs especially unsuited for her ultra-legit soprano: Sisqó's "The Thong Song," Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back," and the Tina Turner cover of "Proud Mary." She performs it all with utmost support and classical form. It feels like the war cry of a subversive performance artist trapped in opera school purgatory.
After giving a very funny reenactment of her nerve-wracking first Broadway performance of The Sound of Music (when she was still a teenager), Benanti goes thrillingly off-mic for the final song of the evening, "A Quiet Thing" from Kander and Ebb's Flora the Red Menace. It's a personally significant song for Benanti, who shares that it was the first thing she remembers her mother ever singing. Her giant soprano easily carries across the room as she seems to make eye contact with every one of us. It's a rare and powerful experience, a lovely parting gift for this superb Carlyle debut.