Cabaret is unique as a performance art because it demands authenticity from its performers. It is very easy, in an intimate setting, where you have an artist and a pianist or a duo or trio of musicians, and very little set, for an audience to spot bullshit. There’s nowhere for the artist to hide.
When Mitchell Butel steps onto the stage at the Hayes for his show Killing Time, he has only three musicians, the requisite cabaret stool, and the gauzy curtains that make up pretty much the entire set for Miracle City. (In later dates, he’ll be backdropped by the Beyond Desire set). It is about as exposed as you’re ever going to see Mitchell Butel, one of the most steadily employed actors in the country across main and independent stages, and that’s a treat.
There are a couple of moments in the beginning of the show where he’s clearly testing our levels of tolerance for said bullshit; he jokes, faux-self-deprecating, about needing to do this cabaret at his accountant’s behest, and a couple of other riffs that, bluntly speaking, fall flat.
To his immense credit, though, Butel immediately edits – tossing over to his musical director Daryl Wallis that those parts are cut, and he moves into a more comfortable ownership of himself, his performance, and his right to the cabaret stage. It’s a much better fit, a much more genuine experience, and it puts his cabaret back on the right track after a shaky start.
Killing Time is, of course, about the passage of time: about the way time is just an endless march towards death, or something brimming with opportunity (depending which way you’d like to look at it). Butel takes us through a day, musically, selecting songs with specific themes – the morning, the afternoon, the night. He’s backed by Wallis on piano, Michael Galeazzi on the double bass (very, very good), and Joe Accaria on drums.
Peppered between numbers are quotes from various intellectuals, thinkers and comedians about the concept of time (Butel consults a book to read them to us, but it doesn’t quite hit the scholarly mark; it feels a little checking a script), and stories from Butel’s own life. A story about a particular milestone birthday is full of Butel’s signature jovial frankness and flair, and it earns more laughs than he had expected; this is when he really wins us over.
Musically, Killing Time is an adventure and an experiment – a confident performer tweaking songs to really explore them, and spin them into something new. There’s a CD, so you can experience it for yourself if you can’t make the Hayes, and it’s well worth a listen. It’s a jazzier take than most musical performers would give, and it’s a bold move for Butel, who doesn’t have that signature smokiness, but does certainly know how to create a satisfying mood, something coming up from the gut rather than the vocal cords.
Here’s the thing: Mitchell Butel is a great actor and singer, accessible even when he’s settled into a new character, imbued with a warmth that makes his characters’ negative qualities a little bit endearing, and he carries in his movement and delivery a careless cool that can feel suave, or hesitant, or dismissive, depending on the moment. This acting ability serves him so well when he takes on a little Sondheim in an “Our Time/Now You Know” mash-up that lets him go, well, let’s call it full-Butel: schtick grounded in something real and relatable.
He also has a deep well of sincere emotion he seems to be able to tap into whenever he likes, and there are a couple of moments in this cabaret when he wades deeply into those, and time, as it’s the topic of the night, just stops. We live in his creation. His “Round Midnight” is singular, so contained and beautiful, just Butel and the music, and so is “One For My Baby” – these gems amidst a daring challenge of a show.
Of course, Butel is also great at panache and charm, so “Way Ahead of My Time,” which is a comic cabaret staple for a reason, is an easy well to draw from for laughs and beaming smiles, and Butel deploys this charm bomb of a number at exactly the right time to balance out the show. Not all of it is so even, but that one is just right.
And really, that’s the show in a nutshell: it’s a bit uneven, but Butel’s unconscious dazzle and intuitive sensitivity is its saving grace. It’s honestly so nice to see a seasoned, well-respected, busy performer not rest on his creative laurels and do the same old thing; by trying this jazz influenced show, by re-arranging songs and testing the waters with his patter, he’s putting himself on the line. And that’s the true nature of cabaret.