To a Favorite Performer

My affection for Merideth Kaye Clark is well documented; her performance of Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue,” in its precise instrumentation and note-for-note interpretation that somehow flies on its own wings was an absolute joy to behold. I had the good fortune of interviewing her a couple of years ago, and found her warmth and enthusiasm infectious.

She is playing Portland Center Stage this winter, for the second time, in a creation suited to her native abilities and personality. “A Christmas Memory/Winter Song” is custom-fitted to Clark’s voice and dynamic performance, her radiating charm and lofting soprano.

It’s time, however, for more than a few brief lines for her co-star, Leif Norby.

Norby first crept across my radar in “The Vibrator Play,” a show about a late 19th century doctor who used an electronic device to help women release tension. Yes, it’s exactly what you think. Norby’s character was a stern, austere man, with a rigid (oh please) carriage and little humor. He believed his work to be medicinal, and the play, situated firmly in the mores of the era, addressed only women’s sexuality as something to be “treated”, not celebrated or, you know, normal. I was struck then by his physical appropriateness for the role, with his sharp features and dignified comportment. He looked every bit the 19th century physician.

He popped up again in other productions, each time sliding in and out of focus as his character commandeered his appearance; he disappeared into a pioneer in “The Oregon Trail,” a shuffling drug dealer in “Wild and Reckless,” and John Astor in the two-season epic “Astoria.”

It was usually his voice that gave him away, that tenor, clear like a stream, breaking through whatever was happening onstage. In this production, his voice is used in multiple modes; in the deep South reminiscence of Truman Capote’s childhood friend and their holiday traditions (“A Christmas Memory”), in the personal wintertime stories he tells, and as a soloist on some of the songs, harmony on others.

Again, his voice cuts through like light. Clark’s voice, clear and light in its own right, is made for Broadway, for cabaret singing, for faithfully and beautifully bringing to life familiar songs. Norby, as my husband said, is an actor who sings; despite his role as attendant to the music portion, he is, rather, the star of the show.

As he reads the Capote story, he turns into Capote, sometimes as the boy in the story, sometimes as the adult looking back on the boy in the story. Norby infuses the story with a winsome gentleness, longing for the simplicity of pecan gathering and making fruitcakes for far-flung friends. His best friend in the story, a middle-aged cousin who lived in the same house as he did for a while. The purity of their love for each other, the sheer enjoyment of being together and planning their secret treat making, are the losses Capote feels so keenly. Norby brings out that vein of sorrow with his frank performance, and the result is 30-plus minutes of audience members both lost in the story and gathering around their own childhood memories with wistful affection.

It is a brilliant move to have Norby transition from storyteller to singer in the second half, because his voice has brought such feeling to the surface, the listener tracks the sound like stitches of thread. The whole night is a story of trying to revisit lost loved ones, straining to recall the once-felt loving warmth of being with family. It’s an ache, this show, a wish for comfort on a cold and lonely winter’s night.

And it’s that longing that Norby conveys so succinctly with the timbre of his voice, his wry smile and humble demeanor. Whatever character he plays, he brings a genuineness, a frankness, and in this intimate setting with personal stories about Christmas, it’s especially affecting.

The clip below shows Norby’s tremulous tenor, but it is his performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” that melted hearts, and this clip gives hints as to why. Despite having a higher register than Lightfoot, Norby gives the song a sweet candor, as if he’s singing directly to the one he loves, sitting in their living room.

I’m glad to have had so many opportunities to see Leif Norby onstage, and to see the range of people he is capable of becoming. But I’ll always hold this performance dear, as it shows the quality Norby brings to his work, the candor and compassion that rings through every character.

And if you have the chance, do go see this show.

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