A healing turn for Laura Benanti

On the afternoon following election night, Laura Benanti — the 37-year-old Kinnelon-bred Broadway star who has been winning raves of late for her spot-on impersonation of Melania Trump on CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” — found it difficult to talk about that tour-de-force performance. It’s a role she had just reprised the previous night on Colbert’s live Showtime special.

Benanti said that in light of Donald Trump’s presidential win — an outcome that the actress personally found devastating — she’d rather concentrate on something else, something more positive — her performance tonight at Mayo Performing Arts Center’s 18th Annual Starlight Ball Gala, the center’s largest fundraising event of the year, which supports Mayo’s arts education programs for children.

“My mom is a voice teacher in Kinnelon, New Jersey, and she has some students who sing in a chorus who are involved with this organization,” Benanti says of Mayo‘s Teen Performing Arts Company, set to perform at the sold-out gala at the Hilton Short Hills. “They’re doing so much good work for children with autism and special needs in the theater, so they asked if I would sing a few songs by myself, and then a song with the chorus. And I’m really looking forward to doing that. I think that’ll be really healing and be wonderful for everybody.”

This year’s Starlight Ball, at which Morristown Medical Center will be the honored guest, has an “On the Town” theme and is billed as “an evening of elegance and entertainment reflecting a night out in Old Manhattan.”

What songs will Benanti perform?

“I’ll probably sing ‘The Sound of Music,’ the song everybody loves,” she says. “I might sing Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now,’ which I think is a really important song. I do a comedy medley, just for some levity.”

As for Tuesday night’s performance with Colbert, Benanti actually choked up when asked about playing Mrs. Trump, as it became apparent that the woman she was parodying would be the country’s next first lady.

“It was pretty horrible,” she said. “I was crying literally moments before I went onstage … To be honest, if I had known the way it was going to go, I wouldn’t have done the sketch. It didn’t feel funny. It felt really upsetting. Had I known the outcome would be what it was, I wouldn’t have done last night.”

By comparison, she said, her earlier “Late Show” appearances had been “a joy to do.”
“Up until this last one, I’ve really enjoyed it. I love Colbert. I love those people, I love being funny, I love political satire,” she said.

But now, Benanti said, “If you don’t’ mind, I really don’t want to talk about it.

I don’t want to be part of the problem right now. I feel guilty at this point for my contribution to in any way making her seem like a likable person. So, I’d rather just focus on the gala. I’m really sorry. I’m really just struggling with this, and I just don’t want people to feel like the day after the election I’m talking about my acting.”

Benanti — who at 19 made her Broadway debut as Maria in “The Sound of Music” opposite Richard Chamberlain — just completed her 2016 Tony-nominated role as Amalia Balash in the Broadway musical “She Loves Me.” She won the 2008 Tony Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, along with a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award, for her portrayal of Gypsy Rose Lee in “Gypsy,” opposite Patti LuPone.

Benanti’s Broadway credits also include “Nine,” and she got Tony nominations for “Swing!,” “Into the Woods” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (for which Benanti picked up another Drama Desk Award). She is also known for her television roles, including CW’s “Supergirl” (she can be seen as Alura Zor-El), “Nashville” and NBC‘s “The Sound of Music Live.”

Benanti and husband Patrick Brown are expecting their first child, a girl, in February — another reason to be happy. But she’s also apprehensive, because of the presidential results, she said.

“It’s really scary to bring a little girl into the world right now,” she said, citing the country’s political climate. “It’s so divisive. I honestly don’t know how we come back from this. I really don’t.”

Asked if comedy might offer a way back — and if she’d ever consider playing Melania again — Benanti said, “I don’t know … Maybe in a few months we’ll need it and it will be important, ’cause I do think that political satire can be a humanizing way of talking about really serious issues. As of right now, the way I feel is I just never wanna be in her skin ever again. But who knows?”

Benanti’s only certainty at this point on Wednesday afternoon was this: “I’m really looking forward to [tonight’s gala], and I appreciate the people who are going to come out to support the cause.”

rohan