Laura Benanti—Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
By Joseph Cervelli
I have been an admirer of Laura Benanti from the first time I saw her as the replacement for the late, wonderful Rebecca Luker in the Broadway revival of “The Sound of Music.” I may not have seen every one of her performances but enough to appreciate her gorgeous voice and excellent acting. I most certainly have never seen a better Gypsy Rose Lee in arguably, the most perfect musical of all time “Gypsy.”
I recently listened to her new CD “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” several times, and it is both lovely and moving in many ways. The title of the CD is a song written by the vastly talented Rufus Wainwright. His uniquely fascinating and innovative lyrics are are a class unto themselves. Benanti is the perfect match for him. There is a naughty innocence as she adds a caress to his lyrics which go from “cigarettes and chocolate are a couple of my cravings” to “I like it a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me.” You begin to understand the person’s life he is writing about as Benanti adds strength to “playing with prodigal sons…Takes a lot of sentimental Valiums.” Few composers comes up with such distinctive lyrics other than Wainright.
It tore at me listening to the heart wrenching “Someone You Loved” by Benjamin Kohn, Lewis Capaldi, Peter Kelleher, Samuel Romans and Thomas Barnes. The 'someone' in the song is the person who left her. She tears into this song with complete disillusionment about how what she conceived to be a perfect relationship fell apart. What really gnawed at me is the almost almost emptiness as she cry out for some help as she sings “Now the day bleeds into nightfall.”
I thought what could Benanti do to make any new changes to the beautiful yet ubiquitous “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?” But wait. The lyrics always struck me as kind of simplistic despite the catchy music, but she brings a very dreamy almost ethereal quality to it. Her last prolonged note really had me.
The Jonas Brothers’ buoyant “Sucker” fits her perfectly in a similar style they wrote the song about relishing every moment of being with someone who you just cannot get out out of your mind. Whether it be “stumblin’ out of bars” or “dancin’ on top of cars” you get the picture here. She sings it a bit slower which works to her advantage and the unforgettable line “your the tattoo inside my brain” remains ingrained in your mind.
Julie London had this smoldering quality in her voice and was the perfect singer to bring out the sexiness of “Go Slow.” That same incredible sexiness is found in Benanti’s rendition which to to call it steamy is a puny description.
If there is one rendition that left me a tad unsure of how I felt it was the hilariously funny “The Boy From….”first heard in the 60’s off Broadway revue “The Mad Show.” Written by Stephen Sondheim it is a brilliantly clever parody of “The Girl From Ipanema.” It is impossible to forget Linda Lavin’s adorably kooky interpretation. It’s not that Benanti doesn’t do a good job, I just expected a bit more daffiness especially after know how she handled the manically funny “Model Behavior” which she sang in the Broadway musical "Women on the Verge of a Breakdown. Her interpretation of “Boy” was a bit too tame for me.
There is a lovely and bittersweet quality to her “The Party’s Over.” I am always taken with the way she embraces each lyric and here brings out the happiness and sadness of this wonderful song from Comden and Green’s “Bells Are Ringing.”
Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is sung with a delightful twang in a country western vein until it ends in what sounds a church chorus. Quite imaginative.
Until we are fortunate enough to see Laura Benanti back on stage again, there are several CD’s in which we can listen to hear her glorious voice. Yet, for me this is her best solo one.