ON THE RECORD: Laura Benanti at 54 Below and the 2013 Revival of The Last Five Years

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29 Sep 2013

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This week's column examines Laura Benanti's 54 Below act, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention, and the new revival cast album of the Second Stage production of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years.


Laura Benanti: In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention [Broadway]

Sometimes it's tough to be a critic. One night last May I attended Laura Benanti's nightclub act at 54 Below, In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention. I have always enjoyed Benanti in performance, ever since she turned up in that odd, bouncing musical Swing! in 1999. She affirmed her skills as kid sister Eileen in the Donna Murphy-led Encores! production of Wonderful Town — at City Center, though not when it transferred — and as Cinderella in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods.

She has never let me down, except perhaps in The Wedding Singer, although you can chalk that up to the material. Recent appearances, especially in Lincoln Center Theater's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, have only illustrated her enhanced acting abilities and cemented my appreciation.

Watching her at 54 Below, I got a better sense of her comic talents; in addition to her musical comedy flair, Benanti seems to be naturally funny. Thus, I very much looked forward to the live CD recording of her 54 Below act — so much so that I put it off a column or two, so that I had the space to give her the featured slot.

I finally cleared the decks, sat back and pressed play, only to discover that what worked so well in person did not enchant me on CD! Astonished, I went back and read my report of the 54 Below performance. Everything on the disc is pretty much as I described. (One of the highlights, a dementedly funny mix of "Ol' Man River" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect", is omitted, perhaps due to rights issues.) It was the same material, and I have a hunch that this was the very same performance I attended.

Why, then, does the CD lack the magic? The excitement? In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention was a more-than-memorable nightclub act; it returned to 54 Below in September for its third set of performances, and I imagine the word of mouth is so strong that Benanti could easily book another encore. Yet I can only offer the CD a modest recommendation.

One of my comments in May referred to the seeming inadvisability of some of the song choices, specifically three written by Benanti's musical director Todd Almond. These might be effective within the context of the unknown-to-me musicals from whence they come, but they were close to baffling plugged into what was otherwise an hour of high hilarity. 


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