Theatre Review: Norbert Leo Butz Memory & Mayhem: Unplugged at The Abbey
“I like to talk, sorry. We’re going to be here all night,” laughed Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz during another riotously rambling between-song story. Juduging by the approving laughter from The Abbey’s audience at Wednesday’s Orlando debut of Memory & Mayhem: Unplugged, that would have been just fine with them. As it was, Butz delivered a solid 80+ minutes of soulfully delivered songs and snappy banter that transported Thornton Park to blocks away from Times Square.
It’s a given that two-time Tony Award-winner Butz (brilliantly backed by pianist Michael Moritz and drumless percussionist Billy LaGuardia) can deliver a showtime. And indeed, he knocks numbers from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Last 5 Years, and Big Fish (all of which he starred in) into the stratosphere while strumming an acoustic guitar.
But the difference between a good singer and a great showman is their patter. Butz has his down pat, alternates effortlessly between parodicly self-depreciating and sentimentally sincere. Inspired by his own aging, the evening has an underlying theme of “hearkening back to memories of earlier times,” with songs written in the “past tense.” Accordingly, his linking stories are reflections on key moments from his life, from being cast in The Last 5 Years (“the Fleetwood Mac of musicals”) to naming his youngest daughter (“with the last name Butz, you have to pack the first name with a lot of open vowels”).
But the tales also take hilariously absurd turns, as when Butz recounts a dream about an S&M tryst between composer David Yazbeck and Tennesie Ernie Ford (“I don’t do drugs…any more.) The finale goes from surreal to sublime, as he stops mid-verse during “Dancing Through Life” (from his breakout role in Wicked), saying “I always hated this song. I was having a tough time in the role, Fiyero is a little underwritten…It’s all about the girls,” before launching into a showstopping rendition of the musical’s feminist aria “Defying Gravity.”
After a two-song encore, Butz bade farewell to the cheering crowd by promising to return to Orlando with his newest cabaret Girls, Girls, Girls, and thanked The Abbey’s new artistic director (and Broadway producer) Kenny Howard for bringing him down to perform. Here’s hoping Howard can convince more of his Manhattan friends to make the trip down to Orlando’s off-Broadway.