- CHARITY BENEFIT
Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.- August 10, 2012
When one hears that Norbert Leo Butz is making his cabaret debut at the elegant 54 Below, one would expect that he would be doing what other Broadway musical comedy stars do when they make infrequent appearances in cabaret rooms; a program of their Broadway songs. He has won many awards and nominations for his work off Broadway, on Broadway, and in road companies for his larger than life energetic stage work. Surprisingly, his cabaret show includes only two of his greatest show hits, a wonderful tongue twisting list song “I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and a hysterically funny mix-up of “Great Big Stuff” with “16 Tons.”
Appearing with top musicians, including his extraordinary music director Michael Moritz on piano, Kenny Brascia on guitar, Steve Gilewski on upright bass, David Rimelis on fiddle/acoustic guitar/banjo, Gary Seligson on drums/percussion, Butz opens with a nostalgic traveling song “Home” (Marc Broussard), also accompanying himself on acoustic guitar revealing a Southern New Orleans accent with country/western blues vocal accents. His opening patter relates that he didn’t want to do a theme show but after selecting the songs he wanted to sing, he realized that most of the songs were memory/remembrance songs, of the good things we remember and the bad things we try to forget. His first selection after that announcement was the extraordinary “The Waking,” a Theodore Roethke poem set to music by jazz singer Kurt Elling which has an unusual lyric refrain “I can’t wait to sleep” because in dreams everything will be wonderful. Butz is heartbreaking in his simplicity singing this and it sets the tone for the rest of the evening which includes Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do,” Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go,” and a stunning version of Jimmy Webb’s “If These Walls Could Speak,” which is a song about memories of a past love affair that took place in the empty cottage future buyers are inspecting.
Butz’ backup vocalist, the pretty Lauren Kennedy joins him center stage for a contradictory song, the Civil Wars‘ “Poison and Wine” in which they tenderly contradict each other’s lyrics about what is happening in their love affair. Kennedy’s voice on this is bell-like legitimate theater, complementing and contrasting with Butz’ tender blues phrasing.
Butz has a funny autobiographical section about his three daughters from his two marriages. He separated from his first wife when his first two daughters were three and five years old. He advises anyone who separates not to move into a hotel room. It’s a bad decision. His second wife wanted to have a son and name him George but they had a girl. To compensate they named her Georgia, and he sings a tender “Georgia on My Mind” (Hoagy Carmichael), with special lyric adaptations personalizing the song as he enacts cradling his daughter in his arms. His first wife and his two older daughters live two blocks away from where he lives now and they are all friends. He describes how he used to drive the first two in his car and the song they always wanted to hear was Alicia Keys‘ “No One” from 2004. He gives his own full out rocking rendition.
A funny narrative followed. He dreamed that Tennessee Ernie Ford and David Yazbek were drunken buddies performing in a Berlin cabaret. He takes Ford‘s 1955 hit “16 Tons” (Merle Travis) and mixes it up with Yazbek’s “Great Big Stuff” (which he sang in his Tony award winning performance in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.) It is a brilliant mix that the audience went wild about. He stated that Yazbek was at his first performance and almost fell off his chair hearing the mix! It has to be seen and heard to be believed as he sings and dances all over the stage with his acoustic guitar!
He admires Tom Waits whose songs many cabaret artists are including in their new shows, and does a stellar job on “Broken Bicycles.” Butz predicts that Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green’s Hands on a Hardbody will be the next big Broadway musical and does a great all out “Burn That Bridge” from that show. Green was in the audience.
The last song was “Be Mine” by David Gray.” another big finish. The audience stood and wished that there was even more.
There was one more scheduled performance this Saturday at 11:00 pm and there were fifteen open spots when I left at 12:30 am. Butz will appear in Therese Rebeck’s new play Dead Accounts with Katie Holmes at the Music Box Theater in November. I’m sure with his energy he’ll do more dates at 54 Below and hopefully record a live album of this show.
Norbert Leo Butz performs August 11 at 11 pm at 54 Below, 254 West 54 Street. Tickets and information are available at www.54Below.com