DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Catch Me If You Can Star Kerry Butler Plus The Debut of "The Voice"

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Catch Me If You Can Star Kerry Butler Plus The Debut of "The Voice"
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Kerry Butler
Kerry Butler

As wonderful as Aaron Tveit (as suave, young con artist Frank Abagnale) and Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz (as FBI Fraud Agent Carl Hanratty) are in the new Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman and Terrence McNally musical Catch Me If You Can at the Neil Simon Theatre, this diva lover was most taken by Kerry Butler, who manages to steal the show with her soaring second-act ballad, "Fly, Fly Away." Butler, a Tony nominee for her performance in Xanadu, plays Brenda Strong, the one woman who manages to steal the heart of Tveit's character, and her honest, heartfelt performance transcends the musical's variety-show format to create a moving portrait of a young woman who believes she has found true love. The singing actress, who also created the role of Penny Pingleton in the earlier, Tony-winning Shaiman-Wittman musical Hairspray, is reunited with her Hairspray co-star Linda Hart, who plays her mom, Carol Strong. I recently had the chance to chat with the gifted Butler, who is blessed with one of the most beautiful, crystal-clear belts on Broadway. Butler, whose Broadway credits also include Little Shop of Horrors, Rock of Ages, Les Miserables and Blood Brothers, spoke about her role in the new musical, which is directed by Jack O'Brien and choreographed by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell; that brief interview follows.

Question: You've been involved with Catch Me If You Can for a couple years. How has your character changed throughout the process?
Kerry Butler: Brenda's gone through probably the most changes out of anyone in this show. She started out very much like in the movie, where she was very weak and crying all the time, kind of like a wounded little bird in a way, and then Frank helped her to mature. And then, they wanted to make her stronger, and they wanted to see more of why he fell in love with her. She went through two [more] changes while we were in previews, and the final version, now, was maybe a week before we opened or a week before we locked the show... So now she is much stronger. She's good at her job — before she used to be bad at her job. Now she's a good nurse. She's strong. She's the only person who calls [Frank out] on things. She's not falling for his act, and so she's much smarter — she only tells the truth, and that's what attracts him to her.

Butler performs at a Feb. 10 press event for Catch Me If You Can
Photographed at New 42nd Street Studios by Krissie Fullerton

Question: Has that been a more interesting way for you to play her?
Butler: I liked it both ways, but the response has been much better this way. It's different how I play the song. Before, it was a journey, where in the song she actually grew up to be a woman. She was like this weak thing, and then she kind of found her voice in the song. And now the song is more about deciding whether or not she can trust him, and whether or not she loves him enough to let him go.

Question: Does the song get a great response every night?
Butler: Since I did it in Seattle, the song has always worked. Depending on things that happen before the song, we found that in previews, too, that it lands differently on how it's set up, so that was interesting. But, yeah, the song is such a good song, and it's so deep, and it has so many different layers to it — it's not just about one thing, and it's like you go on this emotional journey through it, so I love the song so much.

Question: Linda Hart, who plays your mom in the show, was also in Hairspray. Does it feel a bit like a homecoming working with her again?
Butler: Definitely. We both have our same dressing rooms. [Laughs.] And we grew really close — even closer when we were in Seattle than when we were in Hairspray. So, I just love her. She's hilarious. We have a great time together. And now she's my mom, and Linda is a great stage mom. [Laughs.] Before, Laura Bell [Bundy] had her [as her mom in Hairspray], and now she's all mine. [Laughs.] She really takes on the mothering role with me, like she'll tell me [to] watch my makeup. She'll watch my song and tell me how it's going and stuff like that. [Laughs.] She really acts like my mom and looks out for the best for me.

Butler in Broadway's Catch Me If You Can
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How would you describe the final version of Brenda?
Butler: She's a strong girl, but she's in a weird position because she had always been close to her family, and she made this decision to leave them, so she is a little bit lost at the point when she meets Frank because she doesn't really fit in and she is trying to make it on her own, which she has never done before. All she wants to do is do a good job, and she doesn't have time for boyfriends and things like that, and then she ends up falling in love — and that was the last thing on her mind. Also, she had the wedding that was cancelled, and she had to stand up to her father for that, so she still is kind of growing into a woman. Even though she starts out strong, she is kind of growing through the whole time. She is growing — trying to show her parents that she can do things on her own, and trying to prove that she is a good judge of character, and then [the relationship with Frank] happens. [Laughs.]

Question: Is Brenda based on a real person in Frank's life?
Butler: Well, the character Brenda is based on a real person in his life. They took liberty with how she is described in the show because they didn't have actual conversations that [Frank and Brenda] had… I read the book, and when I read the book, I felt that she was different parts of different women in his life, but there definitely was a Brenda and there was a Brenda who he told the truth to. I don't think it happened the way it [happens in the show], but she did have a father who was a lawyer, and I think that is why [Frank] went there. So I know all of that is basic kernels of truth, but just in the way of getting there, they don't know the actual conversations [so] they took liberties with that.

Question: Does anyone know if Brenda is still alive?
Butler: I would imagine that she is, but we didn't ask [the real] Frank about that. I don't think that he keeps in contact with her because he is very devoted to his wife. He's given talks, and he's said that "I would love to say I was a Christian and that turned my life around, but what really did it was a woman." So, I feel like our story took Brenda and made her almost his wife, too, because he credits his wife as turning his life around. It's so funny because he met his wife while he was in the FBI, and he met her under false pretenses. He was working for the FBI, and she was a social worker, and he had told her all this stuff about himself when he was trying to work on this case, and so then he had to sit her down and be like, "Everything I told you was a lie. I actually work for the FBI," and she married him anyway.

Question: That's funny that his job would end up continuing what got him in trouble in the first place.
Butler: I know! Clearly, he is very good at lying, I guess. [Laughs.]

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Brenda?
Butler: It's so funny — I was worried about doing it because it's such a small part, I was worried that I'd be really bored, but I really like it. It's so different for me. I love that the acting is so real. I love doing "Seven Wonders" just because it's different every night, and Aaron keeps it so fresh, and we're just like playing. It's not like we have to say the line and wait, or have to do specific blocking. We mix it up on the bed — on the gurney — every night. And, of course, I love "Fly, Fly Away." It's my dream song, and I love the scene leading into "Fly, Fly Away," because I feel that it's like a really dramatic scene that I don't get to do very often. Question: Tell me a bit more about working with Aaron.
Butler: He's great. He's so professional. He's so disciplined. He has been training for this part for like a year. Training his body. He has a trainer — not to get in shape, but for the endurance part of it. It's such a tour de force role, where he is dancing all the time, never leaves the stage, singing his heart out. He never, ever goes out. He doesn't drink. He treats it like he's an athlete. He's been really great to work with — so positive, and he's so young, but he's really turning into a great leader. The leads in this show set the tone for the backstage, so that's nice, because he's not a diva at all and neither is Norbert, and so, it's just a really fun atmosphere.

Butler in Xanadu
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: Are you happy not to be on roller-skates this time around?
Butler: [Laughs.] I have the cushiest job on Broadway. I don't come in until the second act, and I wear orthopedic shoes. [Laughs.] I have never been so comfortable.

Question: Do you think that the show has a message or does it have a message for you?
Butler: Well, that's what I love about the show. I felt like it's a show about redemption. That's what Frank says — the real Frank. He's like, "Everybody talks about these two or three years out of my life, but the story is really that I did all these things, I served my time, and then I got to start a new life, which is so much more fulfilling than the life that I led during those two years." So, I think it offers hope that you can start again, and also the other message is the father and son story — it's really touching, too.

Question: The reviews were mixed. What has been the cast's reaction to them, and why do you think people should come see this show? What do you think it has to offer?
Butler: Well, first of all, I think we were all pretty shocked… I feel like it's something different and special … it's like an old-fashioned Broadway musical, but at the same time it's not… There are real moments on stage. I feel like you should sit close up because the acting is so real in some parts, where in a lot of musicals, and a lot of musicals I've done, it's so over-the-top — so I think that that's refreshing to me. I love that slice-of-life kind of thing that happens on the stage, and I love the music so much. I am constantly singing the music even when I am not there. I can't wait to get the cast album for myself. [Laughs.] And, it's a fun show with a great message. You can bring kids to it. It's for all ages. Older people love it because it reminds them of those old-time variety shows, and teenage girls love it because of Aaron. [Laughs.] We've had a lot of high schools come, and they are going crazy — it's like he is one of the Beatles. Screaming in the front row. [Laughs.] And little kids like it, too.

Question: Are you able to work on any other projects, or are you just focusing on this for now?
Butler: I'm mostly working on this for now. We went through so many changes, so we were constantly rehearsing, so it's really the first time we've had any time off. I'm doing little recordings here and there, but I haven't been working on any new shows.

Question: How have you been able to combine motherhood and doing eight shows a week?
Butler: I think I'm finally getting the swing of it, now that my daughter is five — it only took like four years! [Laughs.] She's older now, so it's easier. She loves to come to the theatre. I try and do shorter contracts or else get time off from the show. This time I didn't get any days off from the show. But if I work for six months, then six months I'll be able to tuck her in bed. That's kind of the deal I worked out with my family. It's exciting for her to come to the theatre. She loves it.

[For tickets phone (877) 250-2929 or visit Ticketmaster. The Neil Simon Theatre is located at 250 W. 52nd Street.]

Judge Cee Lo Green
photo by Michael Desmond/NBC

All hail "The Voice," the new NBC reality singing competition that debuted April 26 with an encore presentation the following evening.

The premiere may have been the most enjoyable two hours of television watching since the haunting finale of the great, much-missed HBO series "Six Feet Under." For those who were unable to catch the show's debut, the series features four celebrity judges, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, who do not see the contestants while they perform their audition song, making their opinion based solely on "the voice." If one of the judges likes a contestant's performance, he or she presses a button that rotates the judge's chair to face that contestant. If only one judge presses the button, the contestant will automatically become a team member for that judge (each judge will eventually have eight members on his or her team). However, if more than one judge presses the "I Want You" button, then the contestant gets to choose which judge he or she would like to be mentored by. Eventually, each judge's team will be whittled to four singers before the live competition begins.

The setup of the judges not facing the contestant creates wonderful moments of excitement: Seeing both the reaction on the contestant's face — realizing he or she has been selected for the competition — and seeing the reaction on the judge's face as the judge gets a view of the contestant for the first time, are equally thrilling. When more than one judge presses the button, there is also a chance for competitive interaction among the judges themselves; in fact, Aguilera and Levine have already engaged in some good-natured ribbing.

"The Voice," unlike "American Idol," spares the viewer from having to sit through vocally challenged auditioners. For several years I have wished "Idol" would abandon its routine of broadcasting performers who are not up to the demands of the show; I get no joy watching the misfortune of others, and it seems downright cruel to embarrass people producers know have no shot of making it through the audition rounds. On "The Voice," producers have already prescreened the contestants, and have invited only the best singers to audition.

Like the top-rated "Idol," we do get touching background stories about each performer, and cameras capture the reaction of the contestant's family as the audition begins and ends. I was moved several times throughout the initial broadcast by the reactions of the contestants, their families and the judges. If this first airing is any indication, "The Voice" will be singing for many years to come.

The next episode of "The Voice" will air May 3 at 9 PM ET on NBC. Carson Daly hosts.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton
Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton Photo by Michael Desmond/NBC
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