Celebrating Mardi Gras and New Orleans jazz with ‘Julie Benko’ at NYC’s Birdland

What better way to celebrate Mardi Gras in NYC than with a sensational themed one-night-only cabaret concert at Birdland on Monday, February 12, loaded with complimentary masks, beads, and trivia prizes from New Orleans, historical facts about NOLA and its holiday tradition (e.g., Monday was actually Lundi Gras), and a set list of its classic jazz, blues, and Cajun songs, in the return of the phenomenal Julie Benko (acclaimed as “Broadway’s breakout star” from Funny Girl and Harmony) with her six-piece band Euphonic Gumbo and special guest John Manzari? None.

Julie Benko and Jason Yeager (on piano). Photo by Ray Costello.

The celebration opened with the band marching out through the house and Benko, decked out in a dress of dazzling gold sequins, handing out pieces of her home-made king cake to lucky members of the audience as the musical parade passed by on its way to the stage. Joined by her husband Jason Yeager on piano, keyboard (at the same time, using one hand for each!), and mouth organ, Michael O’Brien on bass, Jay Sawyer on drums, Andy Warren on trumpet, Evan Harris on clarinet, and Rebecca Patterson on trombone, the supremely talented, effervescent, and knowledgeable Benko brought her blockbuster voice, extraordinary range, smooth jazz stylings, expressive emotion, and love of New Orleans to a well-curated selection of numbers that ranged from the upbeat “Down on Bourbon Street” (with the audience encouraged to clap along) to the soft, sweet, and poignant “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” (the oldest song in the show, which, she noted, originated in the War of 1812).

For the lilting 1935 love tune “Louisiana Fairy Tale” (which, if you missed the live show, can be heard on Benko and Yeager’s 2022 album Hand in Hand, released in 2022 by Club44 Records and winner of the BroadwayWorld Cabaret Award for Best Commercial Album, with its title derived from a lyric in the enchanting song), Benko not only sang but accompanied herself rhythmically on Zydeco washboard. In her beautiful rendition of the slow-tempo bittersweet “Evangeline,” about an Acadian girl’s search for her lost love (the Acadians were the displaced French forebears of the Louisiana Cajuns), referenced in the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog, she combined spoken-word passages from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem of 1847, with musical passages from the song, in English and French, to deliver the moving message of longing and reuniting for eternity. And for the Dixieland jazz standard “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey,” Benko, who doesn’t like the original misogynist lyrics (“No. Not doing that in 2024”), cleverly changed the words to a more feminist perspective, beginning with the funny line “DON’T you come home, Bill Bailey!” and along with her scatting, threw in some barking (after first relating the story of Warren Carlyle, director of the Broadway production of Harmony, adopting a rescue dog named after the eponymous character in the song – one of the many personal anecdotes she interspersed throughout the concert).

Julie Benko and Euphonic Gumbo. Photo by Ray Costello.

Other numbers included Benko’s sultry performance of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” (a  track on her debut album Introducing Julie Benko), told from the perspective of a prostitute, which she related to New Orleans’ historic red light district of Storyville – a hotbed of jazz, with artists like Louis Armstrong getting their start in the brothels there; a fun and sexy Betty Boop-style performance of the “sanitized” 1940s favorite “Pretty Baby;” and her own original song, “Tomorrow Is A Day For You,” written on the occasion of the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage (and also on her album Introducing Julie Benko).

She and Manzari (her castmate from Funny Girl) “let the good times roll” with her vocals and his tap dancing on the spirited “Iko Iko,” a song about Mardi Gras parade revelers written in 1953, and later covered by New Orleans singer and musician Dr. John in 1972. They also joined in a duet on the blues standard “St. James Infirmary,” on which Manzari both danced and sang, and closed the terrific show with their powerhouse performance of the traditional Black spiritual “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which featured masterful instrumental solos by all the members of Euphonic Gumbo, and the audience enthusiastically singing and clapping along.

Julie Benko, Photo by Ray Costello.
John Manzari. Photo by Deb Miller.
Jason Yeager and Jay Sawyer. Photo by Ray Costello.

But the fabulous evening didn’t end there. The gracious performers, whose outstanding talent is matched by their outgoing personalities, stayed for a meet-and-greet and photo ops with their fans, with whom they shared a sincere rapport and appreciation that could be felt both from the stage and in their up-close and personal interactions throughout the house. Be sure to keep an eye out for the next opportunity to see Julie Benko and Euphonic Gumbo; I know I will.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.

Julie Benko. Photo by Sub Urban Photography.

Julie Benko played on Monday, February 12, 2024, at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, NYC.


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