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Theaters across the country have been dark for nearly eight (can you believe it?) months – in response, more than 20 non-profit arts organizations, including the UNC School of the Arts, created Live from the West Side: The Women of Broadway. This concert series brings a trio of powerhouse performers to homes across the country, connected by their local theaters. Tony Award-winning actress and singer Laura Benanti brought her charismatic show to the Shubert Virtual Studiosin New York City for the latest installment, an intimate sampling of what one could expect to see from her on the Broadway stage.
Walking out on stage to her own applause, Laura Benanti began the performance with an easy humor that was both disarming and instantly familiar. For such an unusual format, her wit helped to break down the "fourth wall" created by the audience's screens. Two of Benanti's frequent collaborators took the stage as well. Pianist Todd Almond painted the backdrop for both Benanti's music and musings, along with fabulous guitarist Pasquale Grasso.
Naturally, the concert began with Benanti's most recent Broadway credit – the Lincoln Center Theater revival of My Fair Lady. For what she titled "My Fair Lady in 15 Minutes or Less," Benanti sang snapshots of Eliza Doolittle's greatest moments, with entertaining plot summaries in between. Thus, the show began with mesmerizing acting, as Laura Benanti called up each stage of Eliza's character (because there are many) with ease and grace, resulting in a seamless performance from "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" to "Without You."
Not to be defined by one genre, the program continued with a lovely medley of "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and "You Didn't Do Right by Me," featuring Almond (with whom Benanti recorded her 2013 live album) on vocals and gentle additions from Grasso's acoustic-electric guitar. The brash "Lovesick" from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was followed by another Broadway callback, "Skylark," the song that scored Benanti her very first TONY Award nomination for Swing! at 19 years old.
Between sets of music, Benanti spoke directly to the audience, telling stories about her career and answering questions and comments crowdsourced from social media. She also highlighted the versatility of her current projects: her creation #SunshineSongs has given students across the country an audience during the pandemic, her self-titled studio album is out now, she's been cast in the revival of television's Gossip Girl, AND is executive producing a documentary for HBO.
Naturally, Benanti performed selections from her new album – the smooth and sensual "Don't Worry About Me" with just Grasso's accompaniment, and a humorous 2020-style version of "Wives and Lovers." Lewis Capaldi's "Someone You Loved," also featured on the album, was not, as Benanti jokingly described it, "an old lady trying to sing a pop song." However, she did stumble over a few of the lyrics, and admitted immediately afterwards candidly that the second half of the song didn't go well…she is nothing if not honest! Hopefully Capaldi wouldn't be too offended (after all, the version on Benanti's album is lovely). In addition, Grasso's guitar solo helped to revive the performance, adding a delightful jazz solo twist to the pop ballad.
A confusing medley of pop covers was the penultimate program item, ranging from "Single Ladies" to "Proud Mary," calling largely on Almond's fantastic and whimsical piano transitions stringing about ten very different songs together. The concert's "encore" made much more sense – Liza Minelli's "A Quiet Thing" (from Flora and the Red Menace), beautifully sung acapella. With this passionate song, Benanti reiterated her lyrical freedom to close the performance.