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Sherie Loves Norbert & Vice-Versa, But...

Genius two-hander at 54 Below; Nelson Sullivan on Gansevoort

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The Broadway season is officially ended, of course and, while more ignorant, commercially-minded theater queens may bemoan the lack of anything big and splashy to get wet over, the most thrilling show I’ve seen so far this year is a two-hander, at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below (on July 12), running until July 28. In fact, “Twohander” is its title, and it stars Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz, who have put together something that has really never been done before. When it began, very abruptly, without the usual “Ladies and gentleman, here are...” shtick, I wasn’t sure if the strong and quite combative personas they were projecting with such fiendish energy and confident brio were characters, or actually just them.

It became apparent that they were, indeed, being Sherie and Norbert, two protean, always totally committed talents, recounting their intense, up-and-down, dizzyingly romantic yet long-unconsummated love for each other, from the time they met in — as they say — the “early, late ‘90s” while appearing in “Rent” (he was Sunday Night Roger) through their co-starring Off-Broadway in Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” to various failed and almost-projects (“Next to Normal”).

And it all coming together successfully on Broadway, finally originating juicy roles in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” for which — through her help it’s revealed — he won the Tony. And then, various tensions and, always, their combustible interpersonal connection resulted in a final blow-up with them not speaking for years.

It’s the kind of incredibly candid personal reveal, set to music, that could induce queasiness, to say the least. But such are these two performance geniuses’ skill, sensitivity, titanic wit, gorgeous musicality, and, above all, graceful tact, with material that while blisteringly frank is at all times highly respectful to both, that you are slyly, yet irresistibly pulled in, experiencing every fraught moment of their relationship, through its myriad changes, as if it were your own.

The songs are largely culled from their shows — call this an anti-jukebox musical, because many of them are sung only partially, or reinterpreted — and they are all interwoven into their compelling, often uproarious, and sometimes deeply affecting dialogue, with uncanny seamlessness. Hard-core theater buffs will lap up all of the juicy backstage details, delighting in the ubiquity with which these two kept trouping together, having both realized their stage chemistry and each other’s supernal gifts from the get-go, while someone who’s never even seen a musical will inevitably respond to the bittersweet “What-if?” quality of their gallantly maintained — if often severely challenged — mutual platonic connection. Don’t we all have at least one devastating “one that got away” story in our lives?

“Just get in here!,” Scott says she thought at one point, lying in bed while he was a house-guest. “My husband sleeps through anything!”

One surprising song that popped up was a honey that is never done — Kander and Ebbs’ “How Lucky Can You Get” from Streisand’s movie “Funny Lady.” They brought a goofiness to it — as well as a searing soulfulness from her — and it’s the perfect theme for the sweet rapprochement that happened between them. This is the most excruciatingly intimate but quite brilliant, superbly accompanied cabaret-that-is-pure-theater little miracle, in which they both get to play the two best roles of their insanely accomplished lives.

As if acting, singing, dancing, and playing guitar, with his usual breathless, breathtaking, and riveting abandon, weren’t enough, Butz, mensch supreme, stood at the club’s exit after the show greeting and thanking everyone for coming. The only two performers I have ever seen do this in cabaret are Brooke Shields and the great Jack Jones, and, if being humble is the sign of the greatest artists — which I firmly believe is the truth — you should have heard Butz apologizing to everyone for his sweat-stained shirt. Was he kidding? The enslaved audience would have, as one, gladly sniffed those pits and lapped up every drop!

“A Look Back: Fifty Years After Stonewall” is an art exhibit running through August 10, at Fort Gansevoort, which is that brownstone that stands in the very middle of the Meat Market. I used to visit there when it was the home of one of the show’s subjects (along with Peter Hujar, Kate Millet, David Wojnarowicz, and Greer Lankton), the late videographer Nelson Sullivan.

A lovely, louche true gentleman of the South, he was a Downtown fixture in the mythic 1980s, a heavy video camera forever perched on one shoulder, as he captured forever the fabulously raffish and magical characters of the club and party scene, priceless footage that you can now see on his well-kept YouTube profile. Sullivan superstars included Sylvia Miles (a testament to his gallant forbearance), RuPaul in his earliest days in town, Michael Musto, Lady Bunny, the great Ethyl Eichelberger, Tish Gervais, Lahoma Van Zandt and, even moi, recorded one sunny day on his roof when he, Musto, and I engaged in an uproarious game of Trivial Pursuit (movie version).

Nelson was truly one-of-a-kind, obsessed in just the right way (as we all were), not one to suffer fools, and he left us much too soon. But, watching the wonder on these gay millennials’ faces at the warm reunion of an opening (July 11) looking at all those youthful East Village rara avises kicking up their cha cha heels — each one virtually defining camp, Ms. Wintour — it did my heart good to know that his work will live on forever.

TWOHANDER | Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. | Jul. 18-21, Jul. 25-28 at 7 p.m.; Jul. 21 at 9:30 p.m. | $70-$145, plus $25 food & drink minimum | 54below.com

A LOOK BACK: FIFTY YEARS AFTER STONEWALL | Fort Gansevoort, 5 Ninth Ave. | Through Aug. 10: Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. | fortgansevoort.com

Updated 9:13 am, July 18, 2019
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