Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Other Funny Girl: Julie Benko, Broadway’s Most Valuable Player, Jazzes It Up with a Little Birdland Gumbo

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Julie Benko: she’s not a marquee name unless you’re a fan of “Funny Girl” since it opened on Broadway almost a year ago. Benko subbed for Beanie Feldstein on numerous occasions and built a rabid following overnight. She became so popular as Fanny Brice that when Lea Michele took over the role, Benko was guaranteed one show a week — on Thursday nights — if she stayed. Soon she’ll do a whole week.

So it was extra cool to be at Birdland on West 44th St. recently when Benko took the stage. Birdland served as Preservation Hall North as Benko marched her band on stage for a set called Euphonic Gumbo. The performance, inspired by the French Quarter of New Orleans, was hardly a random soup, but more of a well thought out, scenic visit to the Crescent City beloved by Benko and her husband, jazz pianist Jason Yeager who makes her arrangements of classic tunes entirely fresh for her.

It helps that her seven-piece band includes first rate players: including Michael O’Brian on bass, drummer Jay Sawyer, Andy Warren on trumpet, Evan Christopher on clarinet and Ron Wilkins on trombone. Mixing up the music and her story-telling, Benko created a quiz with prizes that include Café du Monde’s chicory infused coffee, her CDs, and a return to her next Birdland gig—all great because, as she demonstrates amply, she is a master at the cabaret genre, her theme enabling her to provide a history of the beloved Louisiana city, as well as lovely renditions of the tunes.

For “Love for Sale,” known in Billie Holliday’s version, Benko talks about Storyville, a surprisingly diverse place in Jim Crow south. Louis Armstrong lived there for a while in the early twentieth century. She imagines a brothel there. Of course, there were jokes about parades and raining on them. Referencing Brice, Benko changed some language in “Bill Bailey,” which Fanny Brice sang back in the day when the lyrics reflected a different attitude about women and their men. Swapping “Don’t” for “Won’t,” she sang, “Don’t you come home Bill Bailey.” 

Julie Benko will take on the role of Fanny Brice for a week soon, she said when we caught up with her after the show. Gleeks — as Lea Michele’s fans are called — after the show, “Glee” — will not be disappointed. Benko and Yeager return to Birdland on March 27 for his homage to the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. The cat will be in the cradle, and we will be glued to our seats.

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