“…you’re all here because I have to talk…I’m having an issue with women…” Immediately up front and personal, Norbert Leo Butz has no problem dispensing with the fourth wall. His rambunctious demeanor and casual attire (apparently H&M) seem to make him one of ‘us,’ albeit with the kinetic energy of a pinball machine and a wellspring of heady talent. Familiar only with the artist’s formidable body of work on Broadway, I was unprepared for the musical tsunami that ensued.
Butz has three daughters, three sisters, a wife and ex-wife, mothers-in-law, 17 nieces – in fact, immeasurable estrogen in his life. “Even the dog is a woman.” They all kept telling him he didn’t get it. When a savvy friend suggested he look at archetypes, “common denominators based on preliterate myths,” Butz started to research Greek goddesses. Girls, Girls, Girls, apparently a revival, reframes iconic myths in millennial vernacular, each paired with an unexpected musical number. What may sound academic is, in fact, a mesmerizing storm of storytelling and song.
…Her name is Yoshimi/She’s a black belt in karate/Working for the city/She has to discipline her body…(“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part I”-The Flaming Lips) represents Athena, Goddess of War. Yes, that eclectic. Butz, in constant, kinetic movement, bounces, jerks up his knee, and practically uproots the microphone stand, one seemingly spastic arm gesturing.
Queen Hera, goddess of marriage and family comes next. Expecting her husband to be productive, kind and faithful, she instead got Zeus “who couldn’t keep his lightening bolt in his pants.” The tale is reflected by Loretta Lynn’s “Mrs. Leroy Brown” about a man who said he wanted babies but instead philanders…Hey Leroy Brown, how do you like my big old pink limo/I just drawed all your money outta the bank today/Honey, you don’t have no mo’…his vengeful spouse declares. It’s a hard-charging, rockabilly hoedown. Butz stamps, screams, growls, and shoves it to the errant Zeus.
Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex had a weakness for military men. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (Kenny Rogers) contains the fervent plea of a wounded veteran. A thumbs-in-the-pocket two-step, the song is poignant. Butz tends to tighten his jaw when performing painful emotions. A verse with only drum accompaniment feels ravaged. He’s invested.
Sinead O’Connor’s “In This Heart” signifies the wail of Demeter for daughter Persephone pulled into the Underworld. With MD/Pianist Michel Moritz Jr. in vocal harmony, Butz imbues the story with dramatic heft between wrenching verses. Melody is sweet, but torn from the gut. “Tecumseh Valley” (Townes Van Zandt) follows with Butz’s soulful, acoustic guitar and slow, emphatic drums swelling to a “rage against the dying of the light.” (Dylan Thomas)
We hear The Furies ‘depicted’ by Shawn Colvin …She didn’t believe in transcendence/And it’s time for a few small repairs, she said/Sunny came home with a vengeance …as Butz’s throat opens and closes, ratcheting bright and dark. (“Sunny Comes Home.”) and the Muses embodied by aching regret with a David Grey lyric from “Kathleen” including the only instance you’re likely to hear …Toora Loora Toora Loo-Rye Aye…in a rock arrangement so gangbuster bruising it appears as if the artist might spontaneously combust.
“Stacey’s Mom” (Fountain of Wayne) personifies “a quintessential myth.” Butz takes off into the audience to get someone up and dancing. (This one’s a hoot.) Richard Thompson’s “Galway to Graceland” (the Crone) arrives measured, halting, straight from the hip, backed by a guitar solo one can only call resonant sympathy. Butz’s face crumples.
Comparing an aspect of himself to each of these women, the performer comes to the conclusion womanhood is not easy. “Wig in a Box” (Stephen Trask), a trailer park blues…suddenly I’m Miss Beehive 1963…delivered with bite, spit and gumption segues into cacophony, perhaps manifestation of internal turmoil.
I don’t think I’ve ever called out all so many numbers in a show, but each of these contributes to this skillfully structured and written evening. A couple are weapons-grade LOUD, replete with harsh, flashing lights and vocal detonation that to me, slightly diminishes effect, but as a whole, the smart, enthralling piece grabs and holds from the get-go.
Norbert Leo Butz has a stylistic range of which one was hardly aware. He can inhabit sorrow from a convincing emotional core, charm with wit, or let loose manifesting elemental wildness that feels palpably unconditional.
The band is textural, tight and vigorous.
This show was evidently recorded by Broadway Records. I imagine it’s dynamic on CD, but if you can, get yourself to the venue – fully prepared to have your socks knocked off.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Norbert Leo Butz: Girls, Girls, Girls
MD/Arrangements/Piano- Michael J. Moritz Jr.
James Leahey-Guitar, Billy LaGuardia-Guitar, Adam DeAscentis-Bass, Khaled Tabbara-Drums
254 West 54th Street
August 8 and 10 at 7 p.m.