By Linda Amiel Burns . . .
The Two-time Tony Award winning actor and musical theater star Norbert Leo Butz (Big Fish, Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Wicked, The Last 5 Years) performed an intimate and personal show, at Feinstein’s/54 Below, inspired by his seven months of isolation in Vancouver, British Columbia during the pandemic filming the NBC series “Debris.” In musical theater you perform songs as the character in the show, but the art of cabaret allows the singer to choose their own material, make the songs their own, and the audience gets to experience the performer in a new and exciting way.
Norbert is a fine musician and we learned that he played the piano during high school, later guitar in college, but rediscovered his love for the piano during the pandemic. He opened the show sitting at the piano with a musical monologue talking about his childhood in St. Louis, Mo. being the 7th of 10 children. He later stood center stage and accompanied himself on the guitar, introducing the dynamic singer Crystal Monee-Hall who sang with him and provided backup and harmonies. He was supported by three talented musicians that added great depth to the arrangements, Adam Deascentis on Bass, Damon Grant on Drums and Mairi Dorman Phaneuf on cello.
His strength, along with having a terrific singing voice that can adapt to many types of music, is that he is a superb actor and when he interprets the lyrics, they take on special meanings. His song choices echoed the isolation and self-reflection he experienced during the pandemic with songs of alienation and anxiety along with hope and transformation, always leading the audience to understand the healing power of music.
Butz opened with the plea of those drowning in fear at this time – “Head Above Water” (Hall, Oats & Sara Allen) and then Springsteen’s confession of self-doubt “Brilliant Disguise.” The Foo Fighter’s “Learn To Fly,” about the search for some sort of inspiration and a life that will make you feel alive, showed off Norbet’s great storytelling as we felt his yearning for this to happen.
Ron Sexsmith’s “Gold In The Hills” is a song of hope and optimism and what keeps us going through these challenging times. Joni Mitchell’s classic “A Case of You” is about the first blush of love but examined after the infatuation has passed and the romance has crumbled. One of the highlights of the evening was Norbert’s quiet interpretation of Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5” – the lament of the laborer to have some meaning in the workplace, a minimum wage, and satisfaction in the job. Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” was sung as a tribute to “working Moms” who particularly had it tough during Covid, and “Go Your Own Way” (Lindsey Buckingham) as he emphasized that the pandemic brought up many issues in relationships and this was for the couples who didn’t make it.
The audience rose to their feet at the end to give a standing ovation for this remarkable evening of song. Torch Songs for a Pandemic was not only entertaining but showed great depth in expression of feelings in sharing this challenging time of life with an audience. It was a subject we could all relate to and think of our own experiences during the pandemic as “we are all in this together.”
Norbert Leo Butz – Feinstein’s/54 Below August 19-21 in Torch Songs for a Pandemic. The 7pm performance on August 21 will also be live streamed through BroadwayWorld Events.
Covid protocols are followed at the club. Proof of vaccination required.