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Laura Benanti: In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention: Live at 54 Below

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These days, the best place to catch music on Broadway is at the intimate 54 Below, opened 18 months ago by four theatre producers in the cellar space underneath what was once Studio 54. The majority of headliners are top names from big-ticket musical comedies. Rarely, though, will the evening’s entertainment comprise retreads of show tunes. Instead, the artists are encouraged to shape broader musical journeys. To date, 10 club dates have been captured on disc. Four of the newest are also the most stellar.

Thirty-year-old Aaron Tveit, the youngest of the four, starred as con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. in the musical adaptation of Catch Me If You Can. Tveit’s wide-ranging 70-minute set travels from the hard-rocking “I’m Alive,” from Next to Normal, to a tender blending of “My Romance” with “I Remember You.” In between, he covers Dylan (a countrified “Make You Feel My Love” paired with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You”), Joni Mitchell (“A Case of You”) conjoined with Billy Joel (“She’s Always a Woman”) and, most unexpected, a strident, slightly tongue-in-cheek reading of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

Tveit’s Catch Me co-star, Norbert Leo Butz, who won his second Tony for his portrayal of über-square FBI agent Carl Hanratty, moves even further from the Broadway songbook, building a bluesy set that draws largely on pop and country hits from his Missouri youth. Butz uses his low, rumbling tenor to superb advantage on selections from Van Morrison (“The Way Young Lovers Do”), Jimmy Webb (“If These Walls Could Speak”), Tom Waits (a marvelously ruminative “Broken Bicycles”) and Alicia Keys (a stark, beseeching “No One”). Most interesting are his steadfast navigation of Kurt Elling’s maze-like “The Waking” and his commingling of “Sixteen Tons” with David Yazbeck’s “Great Big Stuff” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Laura Benanti, just four years Tveit’s senior and a Tony winner for the 2008 revival of Gypsy, delivers the breeziest set. Gifted with a crystalline soprano and great comic timing, Benanti suggests a delectable blend of Julie Andrews and Tina Fey. Confessing her lifelong obsession with Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, she recalls sobbing because none of her junior school classmates knew who Rosemary Clooney was, describing her formative self as a “45-year-old gay man in a little girl’s body.” Still, she limits herself to just three standards, all delivered off the top. Thereafter, it’s a potpourri of stories and songs both poignant (Harry Chapin’s heartbreaking examination of failed ambition, “Mr. Tanner”) and charming (her witty “The Ukulele Song” and, from Gigi, the winsome “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”)

Double Tony-winner Bebe Neuwirth is the most seasoned of the four and the most polished, though her stage career has focused more on dancing than singing. With her loose vibrato and talk-sing style, she follows closely in the cabaret tradition of Mabel Mercer and Julie Wilson. So her set is more performance piece than concert, as she exercises her considerable acting and comedic skills across selections by Kurt Weill, Kander and Ebb and Tom Waits. Much of her playlist is lifted from her sole studio album, 2011’s Porcelain, including four interconnected numbers that, she explains, speak to her life as a dancer: “The Bilboa Song,” “Simply a Waltz,” “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” and “Mr. Bojangles.” She ably captures the effervescence of Kander and Ebb’s “Ring Them Bells” and the inkiness of Waits’ “Invitation to the Blues,” but reaches her apex with her unbridled unspooling of Weill’s operatic tale of passion and deceit, “Surabaya Johnny.”

Originally Published