Reviews Dialogues and debatesNYCOff-Broadway Published 21 July 2019

Review: Twohander at 54 Below

54 Below ⋄ Through 28th July 2019

Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz perform a show about their lives but this is far from Patti and Mandy in rolling chairs, Gen X edition. Lane Williamson and Nicole Serratore review.

Exeunt Staff
Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz in Twohander (Photo: Philip Romano)

Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz in Twohander (Photo: Philip Romano)

Nicole Serratore: When I proposed we do a “he said, she said” review of Twohander I didn’t expect that the show would itself fall into that format at times. 

This cabaret show tracks the tumultuous friendship between Broadway stars Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz. Quite frequently it is styled as internal monologues that don’t always line-up–him thinking they can never “just be friends” and her thinking “we’ll be best friends forever.”  

This show isn’t quite what I expected. Yet it’s a “will they or won’t they” show with a lot of double entendres and sexual tension. But it’s also an exploration of those relationships you find yourself in that skate along for years but are deeply unequal–giving more of yourself than the other person has. A false sense of intimacy. 

It is of course performed by the people who were/are in that relationship. So there’s a layer of funny self-awareness but also genuine pain. It’s both raw bravura and sneaky introspection. 

Not a light night out at the cabaret!

Lane Williamson: The pain you mention is not something I was expecting. Sherie and Norbert (that sounds better than Scott and Butz…) are newly reconciled from a colossal rift that they both thought would never be repaired. 

Twohander feels so close to that break, as if they’re still working through it and the show itself is a kind of healing. But it’s not the tear-gushing, confessional therapy play that that makes it sound like. It’s a very grown-up, mature look at how two friends found their way back to each other. 

It reminds me more of a play with music than a cabaret show. It’s like a funny Once. They’re both very up front that the only reason this is happening is for the money. Whether that’s the complete truth or not, we can’t say, but there’s got to be a tinge of honesty to it given what we later learn about their fractured relationship.

Usually cabaret shows at 54 Below have a “theme” and some “patter,” but they’re ultimately innocuous. They’re meant to be enjoyed while sawing through a steak. It’s music first, narrative second, if there’s narrative at all. But Twohander subverts that. The narrative comes first.

Sherie and Norbert are playing characters named Sherie and Norbert who are based on themselves and they don’t speak to us outside of the scripted text. Somehow, that makes it feel more intimate than if they were talking off the cuff. I think it has to do with the naked truthfulness of what they’re saying, with how much we can recognize ourselves in their dynamic. As someone who has followed both of their careers for years, it’s kind of shocking to me how much they pull back the curtain and let you see who they are as people, not as public figures. There isn’t the curatorial, guarded aspect of an actor’s social media presence here. It’s a direct, face-to-face confrontation where they’re not always likable and I loved seeing them as whole people.

Nicole:  While they are not guarded, I had kind of the opposite reaction to them performing as character versions of themselves. It made me acutely aware of the pretense and made me constantly wonder where the lines between truth and performance were. They are, of course, very good actors. I kept waiting to see the characters break and they did not. Maybe I just wanted some of the tension relieved with a break. 

Cabaret can be confessional and personal. But there felt like a slight strain in this particular room between people there to have a good time (this wasn’t a show for whooping) and the work living on its own terms. We had a particularly vocal crowd and applause at points where I was emotionally reeling.  Yes the voices are powerful and the songs often catchy or fun, but the undertow of everything else was this pull of relational anguish and struggle.  It was almost too much for me to bear. Empath overload. 

I was not prepared for the emotional risks they were taking and that kind of bald honesty. In this space, I did not know what rules of engagement I was suppose to operate under. Was I supposed to clap after a song or could I have a moment to just process the intensity of what I had just watched? 

Lane: I didn’t need to know exactly what the truth is or was. Since it’s set up as a play, not a memoir, I guess I just accept the truth as they present it without needing to know the specifics. They’re both very honest in their performances and that’s enough for me–the truth of the play supersedes the truth of their lives. 

Nicole: I may have expected this to be a bit more scripted cabaret when it was as you say a play. It was the stakes of this being THEIR LIVES that weighed on me a little harder than I expected. Even if it was truthy fiction or fictionalized truth. 

Lane: Sherie’s writing isn’t afraid to slow down and let things take time when they need to. It’s very rare that we get an entire song uninterrupted by dialogue (or snippets of other songs). One of the things I love most about it is how they drift back into the moment as they recount the past.

It’s told from the present looking back, but there’s this fascinating performative device they both use where the language is past-tense, but their reactions and their physicality live very much in the moment. It bridges time so well and keeps their memories alive for the audience. They’re not just rehashing old events, they’re jumping back into them and letting you peep in voyeuristically. 

Nicole: And through that device of past-present it is as if they are carrying their older selves back to their younger selves. We don’t often get the opportunity to relive those moments in our lives with the other person in tow (obsessing about them in your own mind is more usual).

They are not just going through these scenes from their solo point of view. They are together looking back at what their perceptions were of their relationship then based on who they are now. After their fracture, that they can do that together–share that unity of purpose–is what makes this something special and unique. Not romanticizing. Not re-writing the narrative. Having to look hard at it with uncomfortable honesty together now after all that water under their proverbial relationship bridge. 

For the record I have now listened to 3 different versions of “Save It For Later” since seeing this show where they do a very sexy cover of it. This is their opening number and the lyric, “Two dozen reasons not to do it” hangs over the whole show–it could mean so many different things and it sits there like a warning, yet they proceed.  It makes me cry to think about it now, after the fact. 

Lane: I have also been down several “Save It For Later” rabbit holes since hearing their version. None of them capture the spirit or energy of Sherie and Norbert’s, though. 

Their singing is so vibrant through the whole evening. Neither of them has lost any range or power in their vocals. Their voices are so electric and so tapped into the emotional life of the song. There’s hurt and there’s humor. They take each song and make it feel like the only way they could express what happened or what they felt in that moment. Which is what a musical is supposed to do. Songs in musicals exist to express the inexpressible and Sherie, Norbert, and musical director Todd Almond have done that with what is essentially a jukebox score.

There’s a sequence where they use the Kander & Ebb tune “How Lucky Can You Get?” as connective tissue to talk about all the (unsuccessful) readings they did together before Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I love when a happy song is used ironically and they do it here to thrilling effect. They also use this device to collapse time, covering a few years with one snappy ditty. It leads to Sherie’s realization that her ex-husband saw her as “his personal pet,” as Ebb’s lyrics say. She lets the irony give way to a truthbomb and it’s quite powerful. This sequence wasn’t in the show when I saw the debut run in May, but its addition clarifies the timeline and adds a simmering tension to what comes next.

Sherie Rene Scott (Photo: Philip Romano)

Sherie Rene Scott (Photo: Philip Romano)

Nicole: Dick Scanlan’s staging should be commended because as I allude to there are moments where the focus shifts between them and their perspectives on what they were going through. Its necessary to both have them together on stage but be together-apart. Lighting as well keeps us acutely aware of emotional shifts.

After singing a sultry duet of “Leather and Lace,” Norbert reaches out to touch Sherie’s face and she pulls away.  She goes over to sit with Todd Almond at the piano for the next number and remains over there for a bit. 

The distance between them is immeasurable narratively and by creating the forced distance on stage we all collectively agonize about this gap between them–physically, emotionally, and what is ultimately a gap in understanding. 

Thinking you’ve been understood, seen, and loved only to discover the other person has not seen you, understood you, or loved you completely in the way you wanted to be is the gap we all struggle with. To say “I almost know nothing about her” is an admission of monumental weight in the context of the show. I did not audibly gasp but my heart did. 

But ALSO there was a point where Norbert brushed Sherie’s bangs out of her eyes. It came after the staged distance and I still don’t know if that was a staged moment or a real one. I’m obsessing the “truth” here (sorry Lane) only because the context changes the meaning. It read to me as literally she cannot see and he’s helping her. Not a constructed act of intimacy. NO ONE TELL ME IT IS STAGED I DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

Maybe I just want it to be “real.”  Maybe I want to feel that they can see and take care of each other better now since they are communicating differently. With honesty. MAYBE I NEED TO KNOW IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY and this is the crumb of that that the show gives me. I’m crying again. Damn you all.  

To me, it was a physical touch that meant something wholly new now between them.  It was the act of a true friend. 

Lane: I did gasp when that bangs brush happened. It read as genuine to me and I don’t remember it happening when I saw the show originally. I guess where we’re looking at this from different perspectives is that I take the “realness” of their actual lives and the “realness” of their performed lives to be the same thing. All life is performance, but the truth happens simultaneously. You can fake something, but what you actually feel is occurring at the same time. I see that happening with Sherie and Norbert. It’s real enough that both sets are present.

They’re being more truthful than something like the Bengsons’ Hundred Days or The Lucky Ones, two other concert musicals. Those shows were so polished and manufactured that I felt like I saw less of the real events than I do here. The stage versions of Abigail and Shaun Bengson felt less accessible than the stage versions of Sherie and Norbert. I don’t mean accessible in terms of understanding or comprehension, I mean it in terms of psychological and emotional access. I could more easily reach the center of what Sherie and Norbert were saying and going through than I could tap into that with Hundred Days or The Lucky Ones, especially.

Nicole: I can’t believe you brought up The Bengsons and their musicals. I hated both of those shows and LANE YOU KNOW THIS. A friend would never! 

I definitely did not think that any of their “performance” as the characters “Norbert” and “Sherie” was manufactured. But because it is both a backwards look at their younger selves with a present day lens, there are a lot of layers of performance, character, and identity.

How many actors are on stage? Literally two. But in reality a lot more than that. And it’s a testament to how far they are willing to go (and again their acting abilities) that we can perceive all those permutations. 

I felt I had seen “Sunday Night Roger” (Norbert’s term for his once a week foray as Roger in Rent) but I certainly did not at the time it happened. They are letting us time travel with them but also they’ve learned so much in the interim and this means something very different now to them (age, nostalgia, ideas of success, shifting priorities all impacting these moments). Sunday Night Roger is 52 now and Norbert holds both his youth and his experience together for those scenes. That’s not easy to do and frankly it’s a gift to glimpse this in both their performances. 

While you are correct to point out their voices are rich and honeyed and leave nothing on the table, it’s also what they can access through performance that makes me feel like we’re getting something deeper when they pull these characters and performances from the past and put them before us now.  It’s truly a kind of stage magic you don’t see often. 

Norbert Leo Butz (Photo: Philip Romano)

Norbert Leo Butz (Photo: Philip Romano)

Lane: I listened to a podcast with the two of them where Norbert says that performing the songs from The Last Five Years now, in this context, is the first time he feels like he actually understands them and can give them their full shrift. I think you’re right to point out that age and time have deepened their interpretations of all the material, but it’s especially potent when they revisit pieces of the material that made their names.

And, yes, three cheers for Scanlan! So often, people are credited with “directing” cabaret shows, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen that direction add more to the material than shaping the arc of the set list. Scanlan’s staging uses the layout of the cabaret stage as both a playground and warzone. There are times when they have to move past each other and the tightness of the space means they have to inch by in close quarters. There are also times when they’re on the farthest points all the way across the stage, crouched beneath a drum set or huddled next to a close friend (Almond). 

As Sherie struggles with whether or not to reconcile with Norbert, Todd Almond softly sings a piece of “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True” from the piano. Sherie quickly tells him, “I don’t sing songs from Dirty Rotten,” but he persists. Eventually, he convinces her to take up David Yazbek’s melody and as her voice folds into those lyrics, you see her shed the grudges, let the bygones go. It’s wrenching out of her. I thought that said a lot about both her relationship with Norbert and her relationship with Almond/whatever other friends he represents. He’s another voice telling her that Norbert is too important to keep shut out. She then has to physically move from the protection of Almond’s corner back into the center of the stage–the space she shared with Norbert–to bring him back into her life. These are all visual metaphors that are immediately apparent. 

I’ve been in a few situations where a friend I loved and trusted did something that made it impossible to continue being friends with them. I’m sure this has happened to most of us. What Sherie captures in her writing is that incredible yearning to return to the good times, to share life events with this person, and the toll that being unable to do that takes. Sherie and Norbert have undeniable chemistry. Their sensibilities (at least as scripted and performed onstage–since we can’t know them personally, Nicole!) are so in tune with each other. The show ends right after their reunion and a lot of it feels unresolved, but we’re here at the beginning of this new chapter. 

Nicole: We want nothing more than to ship Sherie and Norbert forever. But life is a lot messier than that. 

I keep coming back to the act of Sherie writing this. Writing both parts. Having to stand in his shoes and her own as they wander this prickly path together and what that looks like when it can never be what it was. Part of it is admitting it was not as good as they thought it was (gasp). Part of it is navigating a new future as newly defined people to each other. 

At one point, I looked over and saw Norbert sitting quietly on one end of the stage beaming. He looked so happy to be there.  And I was too. There is a great deal of hope in the show simply by it existing.  

Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Twohander at 54 Below Show Info

Directed by Dick Scanlan

Written by Sherie Rene Scott

Cast includes Sherie Rene Scott, Norbert Leo Butz


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