Benanti and She Loves Me – The Role She Was Born to Play
She Loves Me is one of those musicals that has a special little following in the musical theatre community, beloved for its intimate structure, its lush and lovely Bock & Harnick score, and for its gentle little romantic/comedy of errors plot. It is considered a coup-de-theatre-going to see a production of this under-produced gem. Laura Benanti is one of those musical theatre stars who inspires her own special following thanks to her ability to transform herself so thoroughly and thoughtfully with each role she plays. She also has an audacious sense of humor, a sparkling wit, a touch of irreverence, and a most affecting singing voice. Her ability to balance humor with heart makes her the perfect choice to play the lovesick shop clerk Amalia Balash in She Loves Me. Fortunately, Roundabout Theatre had that same thought and cast Ms. Benanti (in the role that she was born to play) in their forthcoming revival that is now in previews at Studio 54.
One of the most well-known songs in She Loves Me is “Vanilla Ice Cream”, an operetta pastiche-meets-musical comedy tour-de-force for Amalia to sing in Act II. Having just suffered a near nervous breakdown when she is stood-up by her secret admirer and pen pal “Dear Friend” on what is supposed to be their introductory date, Amalia is in a state of near apoplexy. She is consoled by her coworker Georg, a man with whom she has had a tempestuous relationship. He is (secretly) her “Dear Friend” and, feeling guilty for causing her distress, shows up at her apartment to bring her some vanilla ice cream. Amalia is confused by his thoughtfulness and his turn toward becoming someone she likes. He departs, still not revealing his identity as her romantic pen pal. “Vanilla Ice Cream” follows as Amalia begins to sort out her feelings. Sitting down to write a letter to her “Dear Friend” in an effort to forgive him for not showing, she finds herself distracted by thoughts of Georg, vacillating between the two men who are really one and the same. It’s a great moment of comedic uncertainty and Benanti has the acting arsenal to play it to the hilt. I am already looking forward to the frantic hysteria she will bring to the scene and its other big number “Where’s My Shoe?”. There is so much variety of emotion condensed in this one little scene that it requires an emotional and physical dexterity that few performers have. Who better than Laura Benanti to take on the challenge?
We have seen Laura Benanti play a wide-range of roles. My personal favorite was her laugh-a-minute, high energy, turn as the model Candela in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010). She stunned us with her Tony-winning performance as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the much-heralded Patti LuPone revival of Gypsy (2008). She played Julia Sullivan, the quirky bride-to-be in The Wedding Singer (2006). She was an effervescent and uniquely complicated Cinderella in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods. We were all hypnotized by her masterful rendition of “Unusual Way” in the Antonio Banderas revival of the musical Nine (2003). Even in her early days on Broadway, we relished her vibrant Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music when she replaced Rebecca Luker in the 1998 revival, and delighted in her vocal dexterity in Swing! (1999). If you look at these roles, they aren’t exactly all cut out of the same cloth, demonstrating that Benanti could probably play Sweeney Todd if the mood struck her and casting director was so-inclined. It has been a delightful two-decades watching her emerge as one of the great performers of the musical stage. For a character as complex and mood swingy as Amalia Balash, this will be the greatest challenge (and ultimately the greatest triumph) of her career. Is it any wonder that we are waiting with bated breath for She Loves Me to open?