A taste of Broadway: Cabaret series becomes music to a community’s ears
By: Brian Blair, for The Republic – 7/27/18 4:23 PM
Tony Award-winning performer Laura Benanti reached out and tenderly touched the oversized, black-eyed susans gracing The Commons stage at her show Thursday night in downtown Columbus.
“These are my grandmother’s favorite flowers,” she said softly.
New York City resident Benanti, 38, became the latest Big Apple star to water a wildly blooming small-city success story called Cabaret at The Commons.
And like other A-list Broadway performers who have entertained audiences since the series began in January 2015, the singer and actress — seen on everything from the TV series “Nashville” to a live network presentation of “The Sound of Music” — brought such a homespun warmth that she hugged a number of visitors after the show, playfully sang with one actress-fan afterward, and took extra time to encourage several teen thespians.
The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic launched the concept via a talent-sharing arrangement with The Cabaret in Indianapolis, which operates in a new, 180-seat venue — smaller than the 400-plus-seat Commons. Since September, the cabaret shows in Columbus have averaged 350 people. Benanti’s audience was about 100 fewer than usual because a substantial number of season subscribers were on vacation.
“Cabaret at The Commons has been successful for several reasons,” said Margaret Powers, executive director of the Philharmonic. “First, we’re bringing world-class talent to Columbus. Just look at their resumes: Tony Award, Golden Globe and Drama Desk Award winners, to name just a few of the awards they’ve earned. They’re Broadway performers, lead actors/actresses in musicals like ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ ‘Les Miserables,’ ‘The Lion King,’ and TV stars, and have performed internationally in hit musicals.”
Ticket-buying audience members intent on seeing a specific favorite performer occasionally have come from places as far away as California, Texas and Florida. They also come from nearby metro areas such as Louisville and Chicago.
Theater-inspired fiction writer Carey Corp drives two hours from her Cincinnati home to be a season subscriber “because even in a city like Cincinnati, we don’t get this (kind of entertainment).”
“I didn’t know Columbus had such a cool arts scene,” Corp said, echoing Benanti’s statements at the beginning of the show.
She discovered the Cabaret series when Tony-nominated singer and film actor Santino Fontana last year tweeted about his upcoming Columbus show. Corp has made every concert since then, and loves everything from the artist variety to the easy parking and access.
Columbus natives, on the other hand, appreciate being able to see top-tier Broadway veterans in their own backyard.
Actress and singer Tayler Seymour, preparing her own cabaret show at Ball State University, used Thursday’s post-production meet-and-greet to get tips from Benanti about mixing humorous stories with songs.
Much of Benanti’s shtick involved wiseacre one-liners set up against powerful, classic ballads such as Harry Chapin’s “Mr. Tanner” about a passionate entertainer stung and stymied by a music critic’s harsh review. The tune, balanced with pianist Todd Almond’s emotional, haunting backup vocals, left several in the audience with watery eyes.
Their well-received set list of 13 songs spread over 80 minutes, ranging from folk singer Joni Mitchell to the late singer and actress Rosemary Clooney, who gained prominence in the 1950s.
“I really do believe the arts can be a way for us to bring back our soul and our humanity,” Benanti said in a serious moment.
Benanti and Almond never let their serious and emotional moments linger too long. Just after one moving moment, they were off superbly spoofing singers such as Beyonce, Tina Turne, and Aretha Franklin in an energetic, lighthearted medley as the audience howled its approval.
Philharmonic Music Director David Bowden, who coordinates the artists’ schedules during their visits, was impressed with the humor of Benanti, plus other artists in the lineup the past few years.
“All people have stories,” Bowden said. “And we also all have personal struggles that make things difficult sometimes. But when you can present those situations with humor, then we all suddenly can relate.”
Benanti told of two failed marriages, being such a Broadway musical nerd as a New Jersey youngster that she dressed as stage characters for Halloween, and fumbling and profusely sweating her way through her first-night Broadway understudy role of Maria in “The Sound of Music” at age 18 in 1998.
She also portrayed mock exasperation and insecurity when the audience went wild over a comedic Almond mashup as she returned to the stage from the wings.
“OK,” she said to the crowd as the shrieks continued. “That’s enough.”
And her show and sincerity seemed to be more than enough.
Benanti ended the night with a quiet, a cappella encore off the microphone, seated on the edge of the stage, like she was singing in someone’s living room. And truth be told, she was indeed.
J. Irwin Miller, the late Columbus business and community leader, was such a fan of the arts that he capably played a Stradivarius in his free time and once referred to the original Commons as “the community’s living room.”
Literally just an arm’s length away from the event’s front table of attendees, Benanti made Broadway touchable in small-town America.
And very much right at home.