'The Big Voice' resounds at NCTC
by Richard Dodds
A joke has a punchline, and then it's gone. In The Big Voice: God or Merman, what often starts out as a joke with the expected punchline can turn and twist in a way that builds the humor, yanks it away, and then tops the original laugh before letting it evolve into a sweet parable.
Religion is very much on the minds of Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin, the creators and performers of Big Voice, as they take us first on their youthful spiritual journeys that go comically awry and then become sincerely fulfilling as they join forces in life, love, and the temple known as the theater.
New Conservatory Theatre Center presented Brochu and Schalchlin's musical The Last Session in 2001, and now is presenting Brochu and Schalchlin themselves in Big Voice following its successful run in New York. Directed by Brendan James, it's a deceptively simple affair, with the author-actors alone on stage with a table, two stools, and an electric keyboard as they tell their stories.
Brochu, a chubby kid from Brooklyn, had his eyes on the pope's job before an encounter with Ethel Merman changed all that. Schalchlin was a closeted Baptist from Arkansas whose idea of rebellion was to join a Christian rock band. They had been skirting the edges of showbiz success before they met. Brochu's jobs included a gig as a singing raisin in a cereal commercial, delightfully reenacted, and Schalchlin earned his keep mainly playing in New York piano bars.
They met aboard a second-rate cruise ship on which Schalchlin was the entertainer in what, at least as presented through Brochu's hilarious depictions, was the horribly mislabeled Fantasy Lounge. They seemed a mismatched pair. When the boisterous Brochu asks the soft-spoken Schalchlin if he is a Judy queen or an Ethel queen, Schalchlin gives the right answer: Ethel queen, only later admitting that he assumed he was casting his vote for Ethel Mertz.
Schalchlin's songs, with additional lyrics by Marie Cain, punctuate the storytelling with poignancy, often about the nature of religion, and with unexpected humor. In one song, famine is likened to getting a bad review from God, and in another, a famous evangelist is set up on a pedestal before being swatted off.
There is a Laurel-and-Hardy vibe to the couple's dynamic, most obviously in the physical contrast between the rotund Brochu and the rail-thin Schalchlin, that follows through with Brochu's bossiness and Schalchlin's timidity. They present a kind of vaudeville variation on the eye-rolls and sighs that become shorthand between long-married couples.
The second act enters deeper waters, as Schalchlin hovers near death with AIDS, finds the energy to write the semi-autobiographical musical The Last Session, and begins to regain his health with the advent of the new drugs. But this second chance changes the dynamics of Brochu and Schalchlin's relationship, and they unhappily split up before they find a way to rebuild their relationship, spelled out in one of the show's strongest songs, "How Do You Fall Back in Love?"
In New York, Big Voice was presented without an intermission, but one has been inserted for the SF run. That might be one of the few missteps of the production, which doesn't benefit from a break in its shout-hallelujah to show business.
The Big Voice: God or Merman will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Aug. 19. Tickets are $25-$30. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.
Bay Area Reporter
Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
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