To say that the two-time Tony Award-winning star Norbert Leo Butz is a powerhouse of talent would be to grossly understate the obvious. There’s a reason that Butz is a popular and successful actor-singer, and it’s his complete commitment to being 100 percent present in his performances. From the moment he began “Home” (Marc Broussard) followed by “The Way Young Lovers Do” (Van Morrison) it was apparent that what would follow would be absolutely thrilling. Butz didn’t disappoint. He’s an immensely likable, charismatic performer with the capacity to make a strong personal connection with his audience. A large part of his appeal is his boy-next-door persona. He’s genuine. You feel you could have a beer with this guy and have a great time just shooting the breeze.
In this updated version of his 2013 show, Memory & Mayhem, Butz mixes it up with breathtaking results. He has a rock and roll edge, applied to a variety of genres, from pop to blues to musical theatre. He’s also a sometime self-accompanist on guitar. The common thread of his material is, per the show’s name, memory: a forceful platform upon which to build. The set list is skewed to the work of singer-songwriters and the choices suit him. They have something of consequence with plenty to say— and in Butz they have found a powerful storyteller. Blessedly, he’s a seasoned performer who knows how to get the most out of material with straightforward, well-regulated vocal control. Kurt Elling’s “The Waking” was a tour de force of timing, while his rendition of a Jason Robert Brown song cut from The Last Five Years (in which he starred), “I Could Be in Love with Someone Like You,” was invested with powerful emotion. “Broken Bicycles” (Tom Waits) and “If These Walls Could Speak” (Jimmy Webb) were equally affecting testaments to memory and emotion.
Butz knows how to put together an evening’s entertainment, with the ebbs and flows and arcs that provide a gentle rise and fall of emotion. His narrative is very personal. He’s fearless in that, as well as confident in his own capacity to possess the stage. His text is amusing at times, and often informative, as when he explains with childlike wonder and enthusiasm the scientific basis of memory. Butz has also taken to writing songs himself, which he does very well. His tuneful melodies are complemented by literate lyrics which tell a complete story. “Hotel Bride,” “South Mountain Waltz” and “The Long Haul” are drawn from experience and ring true. He dedicates selections to his youngest daughter, “Georgia on My Mind” (Hoagy Carmichael/Stuart Gorrell), and to his wife, “Hope for Me Yet” (Marc Broussard) and, when he finally closes with “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (Elton John/Bernie Taupin) and sings the lyric, “I thank the Lord for the people I have found,” you know Norbert Leo Butz truly feels that way down to his shoes.
A good indicator of a performer’s power and authenticity lies in the band he or she plays with. These cats were having a good time and that says everything. Billy Guardia on drums, Larry Cook on upright bass, and Kenny Brescia on guitar were grooving and in the moment, under the direction of the very talented pianist and music director Michael J. Mortiz, Jr., who also provided occasional back-up vocals.
Norbert Leo Butz played Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, September 8-14, 646-476-3551,www.54below.com