My review of Julie Benko in her cabaret performance of "Standby, Me." in San Francisco.
Posted by: rossde 01:44 pm EDT 04/15/24

Julie Benko’s rise from standby to leading player has been written about and chronicled as a “42nd Street” type success story for the ages. In 2022, when Funny Girl opened first with Beanie Feldstein and then after a brief hiatus, Lea Michele, the standby during this period was Benko who went on for Fanny many times during Feldstein’s run and then during the entire month between Feldstein and Lea Michele’s arrival. After Lea Michele opened, Julie was now the “alternate” and given Thursday evenings throughout the run.

Julie tells the story of this episode and her previous experiences as an understudy in the cabaret performance of “Standby, Me.” on Sunday at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco for the series, Bay Area Cabaret. Her accompanist is her husband, Jason Yeager, an accomplished jazz pianist in his own right.

She is first introduced by her husband with the dreaded words “due to unforeseen circumstances, there has been a slight change in your program tonight….” and out comes Julie to take the stage and fully take over the room.

Using songs she performed throughout the 15 year period of her understudy life, we learn about all the trials and tribulations, the “almosts” and “not quites”, as she finally gets her big break as a swing in Spring Awakening and then moves over to “Les Miserables”. Along the way we learn the difference between a swing, an understudy, a standby and an alternate. The repartee between Jason and Julie is quite fun as he constantly prompts her for stories and anecdotes about episodes along the journey,

And we hear lots of wonderful songs along the way including “Mama Done Told Me” from Spring Awakening, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “Far from the Home I Love” from Fiddler on the Roof, “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables and just a beautiful rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. Julie’s vocal quality is warm and resonant, and you can see her extensive range in all of her songs.

But the apex of the show is her story about Funny Girl and the sudden sunburst of new fame from Twitter, Broadway bulletin boards and the New York Times on that first weekend she takes the stage. She talks about overhearing the disappointments out the dressing room window, when ticket holders learn that the standby is appearing tonight. But she also discusses the gratitude she feels from hearing from all the many understudies and swings who cheer her on and are inspired by her. And gratitude is the message that the show exudes in spades as we hear story after story of how every “no” opened up opportunities for “yeses” somewhere else.

Julie Benko is a wonderful singer, but it’s her superpower combination of singing with her charm and authenticity that has the audience in the palm of her hand. She closes the show urging us all to cheer on the standby the next time we see a white slip in our playbill. This is a fun show that is both moving and inspirational.

Ross DeHovitz
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