When Broadway actors do cabaret — or “concerts” as the kids call them — so many things can, and often do, go wrong. “Rock” arrangements of showtunes abound. Medleys are hastily patched together. Vibrato gets in all the wrong places. I get that Broadway actors are looking for their breaks everywhere, but on most nights, that A&R guy from Arista isn’t lurking in the booth at Joe’s Pub, and there’s never a real need to aggressively underline the subtext in an Adele song. In that sense, Broadway-to-cabaret crossover can be pretty rough.
Except when Norbert Leo Butz does it, of course. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that he’s good at everything and that he’s both mature and tasteful — things that start to feel like genuine anomalies a scant year after we all sat through Ghost: the Musical. His brilliant, spot-on cabaret album, which is called Memory & Mayhem, captures his series of solo performances at 54 Below, although you’d never know it from the collection of farmhouse-chic black-and-whites that cram the liner notes. This is only a small quibble — along with the fact that there are a grand total of nine words on the album cover that are presented in no fewer than five fonts — and any egregious lapses in sanity basically end there.
We must confess at this point that we actually saw Norbert’s show at 54 Below, and it was great — emotional, expertly calibrated, and carefully assembled. And while this album can’t successfully recreate the experience, for example, of witnessing Norbert wearing his really excellent jeans, this album comes pretty close.
But back to those songs for a second. There’s ample crossover between the theater world and the pop realm, with tunes from Van Morrison and Alicia Keys, David Yazbek and Jason Robert Brown, but all of it feels of a piece. Maybe it’s Norbert’s country/crooner/old-soul-ish delivery that can find the commonality between them, and maybe its the stories that string them together. Much of the show’s between-song banter has been preserved here. His rumbly version of “Georgia on My Mind” stands on its own, for sure, without the pre-song setup about his new baby. But would it be as sweet without it? Probably not. Other highlights include the shouldn’t-work-but-does mashup of “Great Big Stuff” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with “Sixteen Tons” and a cover of Lucinda Williams’s “Can’t Let Go.” If you couldn’t be there — or you were and want to relive — this recording isn’t quite the jeans, but it’s pretty close.
Speaking of Norbert Leo Butz — and we always are — he recently made a guest appearance with David Yazbek at the 92nd Street Y downtown in the first of a series of Monday night shows that David is doing. The next one is on February 4 and his guest will be Patti LuPone, so clearly there will be some crazy songery happening that night and you need to be there.
But let’s talk for a minute about the first show, wherein we got to hear David and his killer band play the overture to The Full Monty, among other things. Taking the music out of the orchestra pit (and removing it from a context wherein the thought of Patrick Wilson naked basically obliterated all rational thought) gives it new life. Onstage at the Y, it sounded like a jazz tune or a kind of baby pop opus. Other gems: David’s song “Sandy Koufax,” which asks, “Is it good for baseball? Is it good for the Jews?” — sung, of course, in David’s endearing non-singer singing voice — and Norbert Leo Butz doing the finale from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Here’s some charming video of that, and some crappy, but also hopefully charming photos. It must also be mentioned that this song contains basically our favorite David Yazbek lyric of all human times, which you’ll hear around 1:12. And Norbert is wearing a hat that he actually wore when he played Freddy in Scoundrels. That’s not like… what Norbert just happened to be wearing at the gig. Anyway, here you go: