Laura Benanti is playing—and slaying—bigger rooms.The Broadway star—she debuted as Maria in The Sound of Music at 19—has reached increasingly large audiences in the past few years: stealing a host of scenes as Baroness Elsa Schroeder in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live in 2013, crooning as the sad sack singer Sadie Stone on Nashville, and mothering Melissa Benoist in CBS’s Supergirl. Lately, even her smaller ventures have blown up. The limited run of the Tony-nominated Broadway revival She Loves Me, in which she starred, was livestreamed. And her spot-on, one-off Melania Trump impression on Stephen Colbert’s show became a viral sensation (8.4 million views and counting).“I’m grateful for any opportunity to show my comedic side,” she said in an interview of her send-up of the prospective First Lady. “I’m moving away the last few years to try to break away from the idea that I’m a musical theater actress, or a serious actress. They like to put you in a box. It’s hard to pinpoint me.”Indeed.For after broadcasting far and wide, Benanti is now playing a very small room, one in which no more than 100 people can see her at a time. Tuesday night, the visibly pregnant soprano debuted at the Café Carlyle, the soigne venue on the Upper East Side that was the long-time haunt of musical theater legends like Elaine Stritch. “I love doing concerts,” she told me. “For me, it’s the favorite thing I do. I get to communicate with the audience in a direct way.”And in the show, which runs for a couple of weeks, it’s tough to pinpoint her. Benanti’s ridiculous range and exuberant talent lets her roam seamlessly through the musical landscape in a way that few other performers working today can. Accompanied by music director Todd Almond on piano and bassist Doug Ellinson, she transitions effortlessly from a medley from She Loves Me to Harry Chapin’s “Remember When the Music.” She beats a drum sensually while roaring through Tori Amos’s angtsy “Take to the Sky” and channels a chaste Julie Andrews in a soaring “The Hills Are Alive.” Radiant in a form-fitting red dress, she reduced a few score of well-heeled, perfectly-coiffed New Yorkers to tears with Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
A prolific tweeter—her feed was filled Monday night with takes on the Clinton-Trump debate—Benanti keeps politics out of her show. She talked about plenty of things—her upbringing as a theater nerd in New Jersey, drinking hard with Patti LuPone, the odd divorce or two. And while she pays homage to everyone from Beyoncé to Tina Turner in a comedic medley, she kept the Melania impression under wraps.Why? She doesn’t want it to become a thing. “I’ve worked so hard since I was 18 years old, and I’d hate for the memories to be boiled down to being a Melania Trump impersonator,” as she put it. When something like that hits, there’s a tendency for people to want to take advantage of it. But she and Colbert’s Late Show decided “that we don’t want to come after her. I’m not just going to start mimicking and making fun of her.”At 37, Benanti isn’t nearly ready to look back at her career. But as she and husband Patrick Brown expect their first child, she is thinking of how it might be changing. Part of that involves settling into a professional home. “I was in Nashville quite a bit when I shot Nashville, and I was in Los Angeles when I shot in Supergirl,” said Benanti, who lives in Manhattan. “As I approach motherhood, I’m really figuring it out.”Whether it’s performing for several dozen people, or a few million, Benanti says she approaches performances the same way. “For me, even if I’m singing to a very large audience, like in The Sound of Music Live, or in the She Loves Me broadcast, I try to imagine that I am just singing to each individual. It doesn’t change my energy, other than being perhaps a bit more nervous. I try to sing to each person and right into their individual heart.”Nerves, discomfort, and awkwardness were a recurring theme in her patter. At one point, she described a near-manic episode during her Broadway review. It’s hard to imagine a performer as polished, poised, and aware as Benanti as a shambles. For 75 minutes, she fully inhabited each song she sang while easily connecting with the audience.While the Melania impression may not re-surface any time soon, she is deploying her comedy chops in a new medium. She’s writing a book of essays, tentatively titled I Stole Your Boyfriend, and Other Monstrous Acts on my Way to Becoming a Human Woman. In the meantime, the singing thing is working out pretty well.