As Louise in the current revival of “Gypsy” at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, Laura Benanti endures 12 costume changes, including a pivotal one in the famous striptease sequence that must be made in 10 seconds flat. But when it comes to Sunday’s Tony Awards, where she’s nominated for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, Benanti must settle on just one look.
And so on a steamy Tuesday afternoon, the actress paid a visit to Marc Bouwer’s 20th Street showroom, where she went through considerably fewer changes than Louise as an entourage of two publicists, her manager, her hairstylist Matthew Monzon, a handler from Judith Ripka (there to show her some baubles) and Bouwer’s right-hand assistant Genevieve looked on. Dressed in a simple black Michael Stars tank, tweed shorts and ballet flats, with her curly hair au naturel (or “Mighty Heart”-esque as she put it), Benanti, 28, resembled a perky, fresh-faced graduate student more than a Broadway star — that is, until she slipped into Bouwer’s clingy confections.
“Hot mama!” exclaimed her manager as Benanti emerged from behind a screen in a sheer, black lace cutout dress that dipped low enough in the back to reveal the butterfly design she got at age 22 at Shotsie’s Tattoo in New Jersey.
“Can somebody literally give my husband a blow dart of Valium in the neck?” said Benanti of actor Steven Pasquale, whom she wed last September. The gown received all around approval until it became clear — literally — that it was see-through in harsh lighting.
While her people debated undergarment and nude lining possibilities, Benanti donned a heavily encrusted, silvery beaded and sequined option with an up-to-there slit and royal purple lining.
“Does it make me look a little thick in the middle?” she enquired innocently, receiving a loudly unanimous chorus of “No!” The front support system (or lack thereof) was also duly noted and there was a call for “chicken cutlets.”
“I don’t want to look like a whore bag, but I need a little help,” said the pinup-worthy actress (there’s a reason her husband calls her “Jessica Rabbit”).
Indeed, despite playing a stripper in “Gypsy,” Benanti, a native of Kinnelon, N.J., is still coming to terms with her more sultry side. “I’m not an overtly sexual person. I feel very comfortable as Louise, that sort of kidlike gawkiness — that’s more how I feel,” explained Benanti, who has been nominated for a Tony award twice before. “Morphing into Gypsy Rose Lee took the most time for me as an actor. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can really enjoy it some nights.”
Perhaps Benanti’s character has even rubbed off on her a bit. At her last Tonys outing, for 2002’s “Into the Woods,” the actress wore a custom-made red beaded Badgley Mischka with a sweetheart neckline and capped sleeves.
“It was much more demure looking,” she admitted.
Not so another option Benanti modeled, a sheer, sparkly, cranberry gown with an asymmetrical shoulder and racy slit up the back that, like the others before, clung to her like a second skin. Sometimes, it isn’t easy having a perfect figure.
“Maybe I could change at every single commercial break,” she joked of her indecisiveness.