Laura Benanti was born to be on stage.
Not just because she could sing the entire score to Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" by the time she was 10.
Or because she trick-or-treated while costumed as the leading lady from Sondheim's "Passion."
No, it's because she's so at home under those stage lights. Heck, Benanti has no compunction about blowing her nose … and then offering the used tissue to an audience member.
"Would you like to sell this on eBay for 20 cents?" she asks. "No?" She looks a little disappointed. "Well … OK."
She chats with a couple in the audience whose twentysomething son is in a punk-rock band. "I'm so sorry," she emotes, before giving Mom a hug.
She sympathizes with a 14-year-old. "Don't worry, only a few more songs and it's over," she tells him.
Warm, engaging, funny without going over the top — even when telling stories she has surely told dozens of times before — she's a natural.
A Broadway veteran and Tony winner for the 2008 revival of "Gypsy," Benanti is the headliner for the final weekend of Mad Cow Theatre's Orlando Cabaret Festival. Ably supported by Todd Almond on piano, the New York native was in stellar form Friday night — despite some inconveniences caused by Central Florida's climate.
"I'd like to thank Orlando for my curly hair and seasonal allergies," she deadpanned before turning to the box of tissues.
Despite the allergies, Benanti still produced a beautiful pure soprano tone in her upper register. Her lower register had a flatter, more pop sound that suited her well on "Starry Eyed/Video Games," a medley of songs by Ellie Goulding and Lana Del Rey.
Jumping between those upper and lower tones sounded a little awkward in a cover of Joni Mitchell's "He Comes for Conversation."
The best songs showed off Benanti's acting skills, on display in such Broadway shows as "Nine" and "Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown."
In "Unusual Way," she was a woman beautifully, almost desperately, in love. Her voice caressed the notes with growing fervor as she sang, "Something inside me goes weak/Something inside me surrenders/And you're the reason why."
Showing a completely different skill set, she galloped her way through the comic "Model Behavior." Playing a woman trying to reach her best friend on the phone because she thinks her new boyfriend is a terrorist, she was frantic, self-absorbed and overdramatic — all with a phony Spanish accent. Funny stuff, but no surprise to TV viewers who watched Benanti on the sitcom "Go On" or saw the humor in her portrayal of the Baroness in NBC's live telecast of "The Sound of Music."
She also sold the silliness of a medley in which she sings the dreadful "Thong Song" in quasi-operatic style, slides through the unintelligible lines of Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and mocks Tina Turner's frenetic dancing in "Proud Mary."
Benanti shared how Chita Rivera told her she must bow for a full three seconds following a performance. After a show like Friday's, she'd be more than justified in making that bow even longer.
Orlando Cabaret Festival
Shows take place at Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando. For more information, call 407-297-8788 or go to OrlandoCabaret.com.
Here are the remaining shows in the festival:
• It Was a Very Good Year, 1957: 7 p.m. Saturday, May 10; $20-$25
• Laura Benanti, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 10; $55
• Mother's Day Cabaret Brunch, brunch at noon Sunday, May 11, at Ceviche on Church Street, followed by Michelle Mailhot and Friends cabaret at 2 p.m.; $38-$45Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun