It’s a lovely Saturday, September 4, 2021 evening as hundreds of theater lovers carrying lawn chairs and blankets line up for a benefit Labor Day weekend concert under the stars at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center in West Orange, NJ. The concert, starring Tony-winning Broadway veteran Laura Benanti, is slated to benefit two local community theater organizations, The Barn Theatre and Pleasant Valley Productions.
In her Broadway career, Benanti has received five Tony Award nominations and won the award for her role as Louise in the 2008 revival of Gypsy. She played Elsa in the 2013 NBC television production of The Sound of Music Live, and in 2015, played twin sisters Alura and Astra in the TV series Supergirl. She’s appeared as First Lady Melania Trump on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but her most recent credits include the new Netflix drama, Worth, and the feature film, Here Today, starring Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish.
As a teen, Benanti played the title role in Kinnelon High School’s production of Hello, Dolly, and even won a Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award for Outstanding Actress in a high school production. Before that, however, she began appearing in community theatrical productions at The Barn Theatre located in Montville, NJ.
Founded in 1928, The Barn Theatre is one of New Jersey’s oldest continuously operating community theaters. The venue’s upcoming 2021–22 theatrical season includes such offerings as The Revlon Girl, Barefoot in the Park, American Son, The Outsider, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Before tonight’s benefit concert begins, we take a moment to chat with Leslie Silverman, President of the Board of Directors of The Barn Theatre, who reveals, “Laura Benanti got her start at The Barn Theatre. She and I started in our first show together, Evita, when Laura was only 13 and cast as the mistress. Even at 13 she already had a leading role!”
Continues Silverman, “Back in March, 2020, we presented the North American premiere of The Revlon Girl, but had only given one performance before the pandemic hit and our theater went dark. Now, we joke that The Revlon Girl is the longest running show at The Barn Theatre because it will open our new season on September 24th. Some cast members have even had babies over the course of the pandemic, but the sets are still up and ready for opening night!”
Concludes Silverman, “It was Laura’s idea to do tonight’s benefit. She not only wanted to do it for The Barn Theatre, but she also wanted to do it outside. As a result, we partnered with Pleasant Valley Productions so we could present it here at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center.”
Pleasant Valley Productions is a community theatre company based in West Essex County, NJ. The organization’s 2021 summer season comprised a number of shows including The Most Incredible Thing, This is Our Story, and Smokey Joe’s Cafe.
Explains PVP’s Kevin Ohlweiler, “Pleasant Valley Productions has run the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center since the summer of 2019. We’re a community theater with many volunteers who help us our present offerings each summer.”
Adds Lindsey Erlich, PVP’s graphic designer, “We take volunteers from ages 13 to 103,” before explaining, “Typically, each season, we’ll do one big musical, five to six concerts, and one play. Over the winter, we’ll be working on our 2022 program which we’ll announce in the spring.”
Continues Ohlweiler, a lighting designer for PVP, “Although this is the end of our season, we do have one concert left which stars The B Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen cover band, that will take place at OSPAC on October 15,” before concluding, “We’re so pleased to have Laura Benanti here tonight supporting community theater. COVID showed us that this community is one giant family; for so many of us, it’s a labor of love.”
The gates open and theater-lovers enter the picturesque hillside setting of the OSPAC amphitheater as the sun sets and the sky turns a misty orange. Old friends greet one another and patrons enjoy treats from the on-site food trucks and concession stands while others gather in the beer and wine garden to enjoy a tasty drink before the show. A young girl can even be seen cartwheeling down the hill to the classic Steely Dan soundtrack emanating from the venue’s sound system.
As the sky darkens to a deep blue, the stage lights come on to illuminate conductor Charles Santora and the members of the orchestra who will accompany tonight’s performers. The audience chuckles as they hear Laura Benanti’s voice calling out from behind the speakers: “A woman who needs no introduction! One-time Tony winner, four-time Tony loser, and winner of a bunch of awards that no one cares about! The one and only person who can pronounce her name correctly — Laura Benanti!”
Entering in a red jumpsuit singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, Benanti’s sweet soprano floats above the crowd as she captivates the audience with her talent and poise.
The crowd applauds as Benanti smiles and declares, “We are out of our houses! You are the first live audience I’ve performed for in 16 months!” to which the crowd responds with enthusiastic whistles and cheers.
Benanti recalls, “I grew up in Kinnelon, NJ obsessed with theater, musicals, and performing, and I found my footing at The Barn Theatre where I played the mistress in Evita when I was 13 years old.”
Following a rendition of “When You’re Home” from In the Heights by young performers Malessa De La Cruz and Gerson Checo, Benanti introduces a very special guest — her mom, Linda Benanti. Not only does Linda run a local voice studio, but she also has several students who are performing in tonight’s show.
Linda Benanti performs a number called, “3 Js,” a medley of songs made famous by three of her favorite singers: Joan Sutherland, Julie Andrews, and Judy Garland. Opening with Joan Sutherland’s “The Bell Song” from the opera Lakmé, Linda Benanti transitions into a pleading rendition of Julie Andrews’ “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” from Camelot, before ending with a jazzy Judy Garland arrangement of “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born.
Audience members can understand where Laura gets her talent from as they listen to Linda’s full soprano fill the amphitheater. Easily changing musical styles from prim-and-proper to jazzy-and-free, Linda elicits smiles and cheers from the crowd as she performs. At the end of the number, Laura comes out and bows at her mother’s feet much to the crowd’s delight.
Additional highlights of tonight’s show include a performance by actress Jenn Bedell, who starts to sing “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me until Laura comes out in the same hot pink jumpsuit and begins to sing along, trying to make the solo an impromtu duet.
Eventually, Benanti gives up and exits the stage, but returns at the end of the number leaving the audience in stitches.
Jeff Foote and Branden R. Magan perform a unique rendition of “On Broadway,” a crowd-pleaser featuring an energetic tap dance by Foote which has audience members cheering for more.
Camille DiLorenzo, Artistic Director for Pleasant Valley Productions, and Leslie Silverman, President of the Board of Directors for The Barn Theatre, take the stage to greet the audience and publicly thank Laura Benanti for her generous support of community theater here in New Jersey.
Returning to the stage in a plaid dress, Benanti explains that she recently helped produce a children’s album to raise money to help reunite families separated at the border. Laura performs the title song from the album, Singing You Home, with a group of students from West Orange High School.
The sweet young voices of the students compliment Laura’s heartfelt vocal on this lullaby which is sung both in English and Spanish. Audience members love this number and show their appreciation with enthusiastic applause.
Young singer Gabby Florendo knocks the audience’s socks off with a spirited rendition of “Lost in the Brass” from Band Geeks.
After dedicating her next number to the late actress, Rebecca Luker — acknowledging, “I’d like to lift my voice for her” — Laura sings with feeling and grace on a lovely and heartfelt rendition of the title song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.
Lynette Sheard gives a soulful, upbeat interpretation of “I Got Love” from Purlie. Strutting as she sings, her full powerful voice inspires cheers for a stirring performance.
Benanti explains that she performed in Cinderella at The Barn Theatre when she was 16 years old and then, again, on Broadway six years later. After thanking the organization for “the foundation this community has given me,” in a shimmering silver dress, she performs a passionate version of “Steps of the Palace” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Announcing, “Please welcome to the stage, my friends — the Barn Theatre Chorus,” Laura and Co. conclude tonight’s performance with a moving rendition of “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods.
The crowd gives Benanti and friends a rousing standing ovation, and Laura responds by exclaiming, “I love you so much, New Jersey! Goodnight!”
As we make our way out of the OSPAC amphitheater, we chat with several audience members who share their opinions of tonight’s concert.
Declares Maryann from South Orange, “It was fabulous!” explaining, “It was neat to see someone with a community theater background come back to support community theater.” Revealing, “This was a totally unexpected evening for me — I got the tickets from a friend,” Maryann concludes by acknowledging, “I’m so glad I came.”
Kate from Teaneck agrees, maintaining, “It was great! Laura Benanti is so funny and charming and watchable. She’s just delightful,” before adding, “She’s a real talent, and some of the community performers even matched her!”
Whereas Sophie from New York City calls Benanti, “Great! Amazing! Perfect!” adding, “She’s so funny, and her mom is funny, too!” Anna from New York City remarks, “I loved it! I can see where Laura gets her humor,” before noting, “I loved Gabby Florendo, too — she was amazing!” Alexa from New York City contends tonight’s was program “Fantastic!” adding, “It was such a fun show, and I especially loved seeing it outside.”
Lastly, we chat with Lauren from Montclair who reveals, “I’m a part of The Barn Theatre, and it was so nice to see someone famous with the same roots here on stage tonight.” Continuing, “Laura Benanti is an amazing talent — and I loved seeing the kids up there performing with her,” she explains, “It was so great to see a production that so many people had their hands in — there were all ages and levels of theater together up on that stage,” before concluding, “What a great way to bring everyone back together again to experience live theater!”
To learn more about Laura Benanti, please go to laurabenanti.com. To find out more about The Barn Theatre, please click on barntheatre.org. For further information on Pleasant Valley Productions, please go to pleasantvalleyproductions.org.
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