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A CurtainUp Review
The Big Voice: God or Merman?
By Brad Bradley
Although we’ve seen countless autobiographical solo plays, and even a few autobiographical solo musicals (e.g., Elaine Stritch At Liberty, to say nothing of assorted club acts or larger productions such as last year’s Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life), The Big Voice may be the first dual autobiographical musical. Neither of the subjects playing himself – Jim Brochu (book, additional lyrics) and Steve Schalchlin (music and lyrics) – is even close to being a household name, although both deservedly have won distinction and awards for past theatrical projects. They happen to be two men who found one another in their mid-thirties after fairly insulated and solitary prior lives, and have survived to tell both their separate and shared memories two decades later. The memories are especially amusing, although two thirds into the show, the tone understandably, if a bit jarringly, becomes quite touching and tender.
We begin with a rather heady question, "Are religion and show business the same thing?" Of course, in many respects, the theater’s heritage comes from religious ceremony and enactments. Here the question is seen through the eyes of two young men: Steve, raised in a small Baptist community in rural Arkansas, moves from daily piano lessons to finally writing music, his first song not surprisingly titled "I Want to Make Music." Jim, on the other hand, was raised in a Catholic stronghold of Brooklyn, New York. A would-be church leader with fantasies of becoming Pope, his iconoclastic music of choice understandably was a disk of Gregorian Chants under the title Pope Pius XII’s Greatest Hits. Yet Jim’s dad happened to be a friend of the Broadway megastar Ethel Merman (of the legendary booming voice), and seeing her performance in the celebrated show Gypsy proved to be transformative, to say the least. In his own words, "it was a religious experience."
We fast forward a number of years, and Jim, already a moderately successful actor (the "gay raisin" in a widely-aired Raisin Bran singing commercial) happens to be traveling on a Caribbean cruise, for which Steve is the staff pianist. In the ship’s Fantasy Lounge, sparks of a sort fly, and they agree to live together. Steve hasn’t a clue about musical comedy, and Jim is appalled that his companion never heard of either his revered Ethel Merman or even the comparable film icon, Judy Garland. Steve is amused and, yes, maybe bewildered as well, by Jim’s "live recreation of every musical ever written every hour on the hour." As their domestic coupling begins to include visits from Steve’s family, they find themselves writing a song together as a family gift ("Christmas Time Around the World.")
Jim and Steve’s family-inspired song eventually creates a new dimension in their domestic relationship, although not until one of them becomes seriously ill does it really lead to writing for the theater. The major result of that activity is the aforementioned musical called The Last Session, an extraordinarily powerful depiction of one artist’s response to suffering with AIDS. I consider the impossible-to-find CD a particular prize in my own music collection, and have a dear friend to thank for the treasure. Much of The Big Voice is delivered directly to the audience, especially by Jim, the far more assured and assertive of the two. Steve, however, presents an equally intriguing persona, even as filtered through his diffident manner, perhaps not unlike a James Stewart playing the Stage Manager of Our Town. Neither of their singing voices is especially musical, but each is a great interpreter of material nevertheless, much like Mabel Mercer, for example, who delivered every phrase of a song magnificently to allow both music and meaning to resonate in their simplicity. One of the duo’s later songs, “How Do You Fall Back in Love Again?” is particularly stirring. The production design is of no particular consequence, and that is probably as it should be. But the show itself is sublimely engaging and honest. Sharing the sometimes serious, often silly, and occasionally even terrifying lives of these two genial men is a pretty good way to spend an evening. I’m reminded of Jim’s question to Ethel Merman when he unexpectedly encountered her volunteering as a hospital candy striper. When he asked her, “Why do you do this?” she answered, “Because it makes me happy!” That clearly is why anyone makes a commitment to any project, and for the commitment of Messrs. Brochu and Schalchlin and their production team, especially their director Anthony Barnao, audiences at the Actors Temple are the better. For the record, this arch-sounding theatre name will be new to most, another welcome new Off-Broadway venue in the face of several such closures in the past year. The space is in fact a small but genuinely historic Jewish Synagogue, which while not exactly thriving, has managed to sustain itself as demographics have changed places of worship as well as the theater. Mazeltov to all concerned. In answer to Brochu and Schalchlin’s plaintive song, “Where, Oh, Where, is God?” apparently he is right there in the Actors Temple, and not only at performance times.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide