Seattle — SIX months ago, Norbert Leo Butz was arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike on suspicion of driving with an expired license and failing to pay a parking ticket. As the actor was handcuffed and placed against the hood of his car, he tried to tell the officer that he was on his way to perform in the Broadway musical "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." "Dude, I've got to get to my show!" he pleaded.
"And you know what the cop said?" the 39-year-old actor recalled somewhat sheepishly last week as the tour of "DRS" was poised to open at Seattle's Paramount Theatre. " 'I'm sure you're very good at what you do, but I'm also good at what I do, so it would behoove you to shut up.' And this is the thing: I was arrested at 10 minutes to 2, released on my own recognizance and still made my matinee at 3. I'm not disciplined enough to renew my license and I will get arrested, but I'm disciplined to make it to the theater in time."
That inimitable blend of chaos and rigor will be on display when "DRS" opens at the Pantages this week, with Butz re-creating his Tony Award-winning portrayal of Freddy Benson, the "so deliciously low, so horribly dirty" con man who's an over-caffeinated, simian Eliza to the debonair Henry Higgins of swindler Lawrence Jameson. Based on the 1988 Michael Caine-Steve Martin film about a couple of scam artists working the same mark on the French Riviera, the musical, with a book by Jeffrey Lane and a score by David Yazbek ("The Full Monty"), opened 17 months ago on Broadway, where it is still running. The show received mostly positive reviews and unanimous raves for Butz, then known largely for being the one saving grace in Harry Connick Jr.'s poorly received musical, "Thou Shalt Not."
Clive Barnes, writing about "DRS" in the New York Post, cautioned that the scene-stealing Butz should be added to W.C. Fields' classic caveat to never act with children or dogs, and Ben Brantley in the New York Times wrote that the "criminally talented" actor totally dominated the stage with "a vocal and comic power that jolts an audience to attention." It was a classic star-making performance after a Tony-nominated turn in 2001 as a lively ghost in "Thou Shalt Not" and roles as the emcee in the touring production of "Cabaret" and in the off-Broadway musical "The Last Five Years."
Having worked his comic mayhem as Freddy opposite John Lithgow and later Jonathan Pryce, Butz is now teamed with Tom Hewitt ("Dracula"), who, judging by the dress rehearsal in Seattle, brings a silver fox elegance to Lawrence, in a show accented by a new opening number, "The Only Game in Town," written by Yazbek for the touring production.
Hewitt says that acting with Butz has been both an exuberant and daunting experience. "It's scary because you get the sense with Norbert that anything can happen out on that stage -- and does," Hewitt says with a laugh. "Yet while it may seem spontaneous, there are very exacting rhythms that make the chemistry work."
Describing himself as "restless and kinetic" -- "bored" is too strong a word, he says -- Butz is always eager to find new aspects to his character. At the same time, he insists, "I've invented nothing" -- every bit of business stems from the blueprint laid down by Lane and Yazbek, from Freddy's mooning of the audience (a relatively new detail) to his floor-rolling fight with a piece of jerky.
"It has to be rooted in reality. The stakes have to be sky high for these two guys or it isn't funny," Butz says, acknowledging that he is relying on director Jack O'Brien now more than ever to bring into check any temptation to play to an audience. Getting those laughs is "like heroin, like crystal meth," he says, "but, frankly, I'm brand new at this. Before I got this part I hadn't done comedy since Moliere in college."
O'Brien, the artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre who has won Tonys for both a musical ("Hairspray") and a drama (Lincoln Center's revival of "Henry IV"), says he would love to see Butz as Iago, and, in fact, he tried to cast him in his new production of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" but was undone by scheduling. "Norbert's fearless -- he'll try anything," O'Brien says. "This is a comedy, but there are scenes between Tom and Norbert that are positively Strindbergian. Norbert can tap into Freddy's wild side but also his feelings of vulnerability and insecurity."