By Andrew Poretz …

Mardi Gras arrived early at Birdland Jazz this week when Julie Benko made her triumphant return to the legendary venue. 

Actress and singer Julie Benko has taken New York by storm since her unique Broadway breakout as the alternate for Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in 2022. We last saw Julie, with her pianist husband Jason Yeager, in their Hand in Hand CD release concert at Birdland Jazz in August. (See our review HERE). Ms. Benko returned with her band, Euphonic Gumbo, led by Mr. Yeager, for another sold-out show. (Mr. Yeager also has his own quartet and a recent album, Unstuck in Time.) Along with Jason, the fine band is comprised of bassist Michael O’Brien, drummer Jay Sawyer, trumpeter Andy Warren, clarinetist Evan Christopher, and trombonist Ron Wilkins.

The tables, festooned with colorful Mardi Gras beads and wearable cardboard masks, set a festive tone for the band’s entrance. (Though “Hurricanes” aren’t on the drink menu, the club offers a decent jambalaya.) When Julie was announced, she led the band, singing as they marched and played their way through the club (with “Basin Street Blues”) in true Bourbon Street parade style. 

The star wore a sparkly, multicolor dress and an exquisite, handmade mask and fascinator created by her Funny Girl castmate Liz McCartney. Jason also wore a mask, and everyone sported bead necklaces. 

Evan Christopher

Once settled on stage, masks off, the band’s first number was the 1935 “Louisiana Fairytale” from Hand in Hand. Evan Christopher’s sweet clarinet solo added greatly to the nostalgic feeling. “Me, Myself, and I” (the 1937 song, not to be confused with Beyoncé’s tune of the same name) was also on that album. The couple “fell in love with New Orleans” the night Jason learned this number on the spot when spontaneously sitting in with a band in New Orleans.

Julie told the sweet story behind the (literally) fairy tale romance of “Ma Belle Evangeline” from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.

(I can’t possibly do it justice here, but Evangeline is the evening star reincarnation of a firefly.) Adding to the romantic vibe for this tune, arranged as a slow New Orleans blues, Julie played a melodica, a wind instrument with a small keyboard and a mouthpiece, first made famous by Nat King Cole in the 1950s.

The star has a problem with the misogynistic lyrics of the jazz standard “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home,” and rewrote it from the perspective of a strong woman getting the better of her loser of a man. With lines like “DON’T you come home Bill Bailey!” and “YOU’LL do the cooking,” Julie turned this song on its head. She also unveiled her scatting ability in this number. The band was really jumping, and it was difficult to restrain oneself from getting up and dancing in the aisles. 

The gorgeous lullaby “J’ai Passe Devant ta Porte” [I passed by your door] had Jason on melodica while Julie hummed a counterpoint melody, when she wasn’t singing in what sounded like perfect French. 

The band’s terrific arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” (from Julie’s debut solo album, Introducing Julie Benko) had a rhumba-like feel, with descending motifs that underscored the seamy undertone of the lyrics. 

The star’s original song, “Tomorrow Is a Day for You” (also from Julie’s debut album) was written when South Carolina made gay marriage legal. Though it is a new tune, it has the hallmarks of a New Orleans jazz standard.  

Andy Warren

The show’s oldest composition, “The Lakes of Pontrachrain,” has a melody dating back to time of the War of 1812. The lyrics, written during the Civil War, reflect a time when money minted in one state might not be accepted in another. Julie’s beautiful delivery here and the touching lyrics made this folk waltz sound like something Joan Baez might have recorded in the 1960s. Andy Warren’s flugelhorn added a tender mood.

Julie had great fun with a sexy, rocking medley of “Let the Good Times Roll” and “Tipitina,” with the star showing off her comedic and singing skills with comedic vocal bits and a big-note finish. 

Mardi Gras would not be complete without “When the Saints Come Marching In,” and the band let loose, with solos by all. 

A standing ovation was rewarded with a stunning encore of just Julie and Jason on a delicate arrangement of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Jason simultaneously played the bass notes on the grand piano and the melody on his keyboard, set to sound like a celeste. Julie’s interpretation of this song, probably best known for Louis Armstrong’s recording, gave it a wistful quality.

The fetching Julie Benko continues to shine in her appearances on the New York club scene. Her voice is beautiful, her personality is irresistible, and her commitment to the material is topnotch. 

Julie Benko at Birdland took place on February 6 at Birdland Jazz, 315 West 44th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue (