Empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache: Laura Benanti at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club

Benanti with my mom and me

Benanti with my mom and me

On this Tony Award weekend, we had the privilege of meeting a fabulous Tony-winner – Laura Benanti – last night at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

The Columbia Club

The Columbia Club

You might recall last fall that I was a staunch defender of NBC’s production of The Sound of Music (click here), which I thought suffered unfairly from a lot of social media-fueled schadenfreude. The one element that did not need defending, by me or anyone else, because it was universally lauded as perfection, was the performance by Laura Benanti as the Baroness.

Roy and Susie with poster

Roy and Susie with poster

I am happy to report that she is even more terrific in real life.

Benanti with my dad

Benanti with my dad

Throughout her fizzy cabaret show, not a note is missed – musically, comedically, thematically. She is one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe.

But even more importantly, she is kind and down-to-earth and real.
My mother and I accidentally ran into her at the elevator right before her performance. Rather than keep her distance, she walked right over to us, and with an effervescent smile, queried, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Of course we were! And, even though she had a two hour set to get herself psyched up for, she stood there and talked to us for several minutes.

 

 

 

I might add that she is just as gracious with all of her fans following the performance in what otherwise can be sometimes awkward for both audience and performer: the dreaded meet and greet. She takes time with each and every one and genuinely connects with all.

Almond with me and my mom

Almond with me and my mom

With my starstruck gushing aside, what about the performance itself? It is such great fun – a brilliant blend of soaring vocals, crack comic timing, cheeky irreverence, and poignant character analysis. The essence of what makes cabaret such a viable art form.

The Big Room

The Big Room

Benanti is marvelously aided and abetted by her amazing musical director Todd Almond who is as much sidekick and partner as accompanist, composing the original tunes, vocalizing with Benanti, and offering the periodic witty aside. And, by the way, he is equally personable, following the performance, happily taking my loony suggestions of pop nuggets they can skewer in their act – notably, my latest obsession Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.”

Why, might you ask was I so bold to suggest such a silly song for these accomplished musicians to perform in their act?
Susie and Roy Capone

Susie and Roy Capone

 

Well, for someone like Benanti who moves seamlessly between My Fair Lady‘s “On the Street Where You Live” to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to Nine‘s “Unusual Way” (mesmerizing!) not to mention Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” it seems a logical addition.

What you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that Benanti’s show is a gutsy synthesis of her tastes and style and identity. She wears all these songs easily … which is a remarkable gift. She is always herself yet simultaneously channeling a wild array of characters.
Benanti and me

Benanti and me

 

This tour is captured live on her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” recorded at 54 Below, formerly the iconic disco Studio 54. My recommendation? Buy this album now, and enjoy it like you would a cast recording before going to see a Broadway show. The album is remarkable, but seeing Benanti act and sing these songs live is something not to be missed. There are enough variances between the album and the show to keep things interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprises here. If she comes to your town, run (don’t walk) to see her.

Most compelling is the manner in which Benanti paints a picture of her life as a perpetual (though fiercely independent) underdog. About someone so talented and beautiful, that may be hard to believe, but the reality is she has always been a quirky theater kid on the outside looking in. Amusingly, she lays bare the personal turmoils of a young girl listening to cast albums, learning to play the ukulele, and dressing up as obscure musical theater characters for Halloween.
Cheers

Cheers

 

(She also isn’t afraid to go off script, poking gentle fun at the more provincial elements of the Hoosier-land where she was performing. I love my home state, but I give Benanti many props for gently reminding her audience that tolerance and compassion and humanity are essential regardless your background or beliefs. And if one can get that message across with a smile on one’s face, it makes an impact.)

I leave you with a clip of her singing “Mr. Tanner,” a forgotten gem by Harry Chapin. This number was a highlight for me both when I first listened to the recording as well as during the live performance. It definitely gives you a sense of her empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache. Enjoy!

[All photos by Don Sexton – more here.]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Toxic and poisonous choices”: American Hustle

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Sometimes the toxic and poisonous choices are the only ones available to us,” pontificates Jennifer Lawrence, the one (pseudo) bright spot in David O. Russell’s latest sprawling, shaggy dog, broken soul epic American Hustle.

In my humble opinion, the most toxic choices are those artistic ones made by the actors and their director in this simplistic and disappointing misfire.

Hopelessly miscast age-wise as Christian Bale’s wife (!) and playing a derivative of the same neurotic screwball she took to Oscar-winning glory in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook (also directed by Russell), Lawrence seems to be the only cast member having any fun in the ABSCAM-inspired farce. Her zaniest bit comes at the expense of an ill-fated microwave (dubbed “the science oven”) and an aluminum foil covered tray of lasagna.

Don’t get me wrong – Lawrence is as hammy as the rest of her colleagues (Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner) but she has the good sense to keep winking at the camera as she collects her paycheck.

I will tell you plainly: I did not like this movie … at all. And I wonder if I’m missing something, given all the critical fawning over it. Or is David O. Russell now one of those “Emperor’s New Clothes”-style directors who has turned in enough awards-show-bait over the years that he can put together a half-baked cartoon and reap endless accolades? Or maybe I’m just a cynical turd.

With such a rich backdrop as skeezy 70s-era New York, populated by no end of colorful sociopaths and parasites, you’d think Russell could have given us a Scorcese-level master class in ensemble betrayals, double-crosses, and deception. Alas, we get a mess of Altman-lite overlapping improv, corny Studio 54 cast-off costuming, and a confusing script that barely scratches the surface of the ABSCAM scandal, padding out underwritten scenes with overdone montages set to cliched Me Decade tunes. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, indeed.

(And, yes, even America’s goony ditty “Horse with No Name” makes its requisite appearance. Poor song.)

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…HBO’s Behind the Candelabra

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I debated whether or not even to review HBO’s latest event biopic Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a film since 2010’s goth-ballet-thriller-mess Black Swan…and, to this day, I still don’t know how I feel about that one.

I will admit that I was transfixed by this peek into the gilded cage in which Liberace lived, loved, and controlled all those around him. Michael Douglas is a marvel. I forgot I was watching him, though I don’t know that I ever truly believed I was watching Liberace.

At times, I was transfixed the way one might be driving past a car accident on the highway.

As a kid, Liberace gave me the heebie jeebies. Not because of his mincing, sequined, over-baked stage persona (who cares!) but because he seemed so inauthentic and full of campy self-loathing. Well, the film nails that vibe, and offers a portrait (much like HBO’s recent Phil Spector) of a celebrity who created a carnival about himself to escape the reality of his own personal demons.

Most of the supporting players are great – Rob Lowe as a plastic-faced Faustian cosmetic surgeon, Scott Bakula as a sad-sack Liberace-groupie of some sort, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s oily manager/love life hit man, and even Matt Damon as Farrah-haired paramour Scott Thorson.

As the film careens to its sloppy final act, Damon struggles to find his footing in those jilted years that prompted Thorson to write the book upon which this movie is based; however, Damon does create a compelling, sad, and appropriately skeezy portrait of Thorson’s early years with “Lee” (Liberace’s nickname).

The weak link in the cast is Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. Like most of Reynolds’ recent performances, she seems to be phoning it in from 60s-era Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In with her cartoon-y Slav-esque accent and Mrs. Doubtfire/Jimmy Durante fake proboscis.

What bothered me about the film? That part is tricky. I may be over-thinking, but why make this film? If we needed a film about Liberace (and I’m still not sure we did), why base it on a dubious tell-all (now out-of-print) written by a drug-addled, oft-jailed ex-lover? Are the filmmakers giving us the inside view of a talented man (Liberace) who, due to the circumstances of his era/audience/success, was chronically incapable of living an authentic, open, loving life? Or are they inadvertently inciting a bit of a “gay panic” playing winky/wink/nudge/nudge “dress-up” in the sweaty, paranoid era when Studio 54, Mr. Roper, Reaganomics, and the AIDS crisis collided?

Not sure. Is this film worth seeing? I think so. But, as I am prone to do, I worry about its interpretation out-of-context.

And, yes, I had a similar worry about the interpretation of the satirically violent Hunger Games with its atonally giddy Harry Potter-esque marketing campaign. So maybe I am just a worrier. As Liberace espouses late in the film, “Too much of a good thing…is wonderful.”

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…