By Tulis McCall
Norbert Leo Butz. A person would have to have a spine of steel to live with that name – just making it through grammar school alone would have been a gauntlet running exercise. Butz is the 7th child of 11. Yes that is correct. He grew up in a three bedroom house with one toilet. They did have electricity and running water I assume because that is not mentioned in the show. What is mentioned are the names of some of his siblings: Steve, Kathy, Mike, John etc. You know – NORMAL names. He was named after his father (Norbert) and his two grandfathers (Norbert and Leo). Apparently Norbert is a valued handle. Fortunately, being the father of three young women Mr. Butz has not had the honor of passing the handle on.
Butz is a chameleon. When I looked at his resume I did a lot of, “Oh I remember that one but I forgot it was him.” He slides in and out of character and disappears as you watch – which is what good actors do.
In this show his musicianship is out in front. He begins at the piano, gliding through his earlier years. After a bit he is joined by Nick Blaemire and Ethan Slater on guitar, piano and percussion box – with voices of silk. And later by Michael Bellar (piano and accordion), Jason Loughlin (steel guitar) and Catherine Porter on vocals. Butz is a gracious host and welcomes these collaborators with respect and high praise.
The core of the evening is based on three months he lived in solitary Covid confinement in Canada where his only companion was a piano. Over the weeks, he and his roommate got reacquainted and he began to play with his own arrangements of well known tunes from Bruce Springstein, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Dolly Parton. What Butz does is turn each of them into a sort of troubadour presentation. Everything is slowed down and the music never moves beyond a sort of lingering tempo. On the good side this makes everyone listen to these lyrics in ways we normally do not. On the other hand the tunes become nearly indistinguishable from one another (except the arias from opera). I understand that these ideas were hatched at a very introspective and bleak time – still I could have used a splash of up tempo pizzazz here and there
The exceptions to this are the songs written by his daughters – or perhaps in collaboration with – “King of Hearts” and “I Stayed Up All Night” were singular in their sentiment and execution.
Butz is charming and talented in ways few of us imagined. I hope he keeps going with this exploration and allows for a little zip and a touch of spring in his step to emerge. He is certainly capable of that. Anyone who saw him in “My Fair Lady” as Alfred Doolittle (Eliza’s father) knows that this actor can tear the house down.
Norbert Leo Butz Sings Torch Songs For A Pandemic – at 54 Below October 30, & Nov 5 at 7pm. For the 7pm performances: Cover charges are $50-$60 ($56.50-$67.50 with fees). Premiums are $95 ($106 with fees). $25 food & beverage minimum. For the 9:30pm performances: Cover charges are $50-$60 ($56.50-$67.50 with fees). Premiums are $95-$100 ($106-$111.50 with fees). $25 food & beverage minimum. Tickets and information are available at 54below.org/NorbertLeoButz.