Sexual-spiritual conflicts sing in witty 'Big Voice'
Monday, August 6, 2007The answer to the question posed in the title comes early in Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu's "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" Schalchlin, who wrote the often witty and poignant songs, grew up Baptist in Arkansas. Brochu, who wrote the book, was a devout Catholic who spent much of his boyhood practicing to become the first pope from Brooklyn. But he also got to see, meet and even hang out with Ethel Merman. So much for that little quandary.
In a world Brochu defines as divided between Ethel queens and Judy queens, "Big Voice" comes down unapologetically and hilariously in the first camp. Which, given Brochu's ability to mimic Merman's vocal timbre, is one of the little show's big assets. A recent off-Broadway hit, which opened Saturday at New Conservatory Theatre Center, "Voice" is a charming, cutting, honest and very funny chamber musical about growing up gay and religious, AIDS, long-term relationships and the spiritual and healing powers of showbiz.
It's also sneaky, hiding its polish until its charms catch you unawares. The rotund Brochu and lean Schalchlin open in deceptively amateurish fashion in a mildly comic take on Genesis - in which "And the Big Voice said, 'Let there be light' " is followed by, "And the Big Voice said, 'Let there be a spotlight.' " Brendan James' staging looks casually haphazard, and the performers' voices sound strained and out of sync at first.
But the sharp wit of Brochu's book and Schalchlin's and Marie Cain's lyrics quickly assert themselves in a clever colloquy about the claims of differing religions, as does the charm of Brochu's assertively buoyant and Schalchlin's diffidently passive-aggressive personas. Their stories of emerging gay consciousness in conflict with childhood religiosity are touching, smart and idiosyncratic. Schalchlin seduces us with a sweet rendition of his first song, a country-style hymn to what he didn't yet know was his true god ("I Want to Make Music"), and cuts to the quick with a poignant tune about the lasting scars of trying to live in "The Closet."
The rest of "Voice" covers a lot of ground. Subtitled "a musical comedy in two lives," it interweaves lightly sarcastic tales of spiritual wrestles through adolescence and college. Brochu goes on a religious pilgrimage to Europe, achieving the spiritual epiphany he couldn't find at Lourdes or St. Peter's Square when he sees Merman in "Gypsy" (John Kelly's lights enhance the humor).
The stories come together in a comically awkward meeting on a Caribbean cruise. Schalchlin almost dies of AIDS, rebounding with the help of new drug cocktails and a need to write music as he and Brochu develop their first hit show, "The Last Session" - a story told in that show and on Schalchlin's blog ( bonusroundblog.blogspot.com). "Voice" continues the story through post-"Session" marital difficulties, a trial "divorce," reconciliation and deepening faith in musical comedy.
Some of Schalchlin's melodies seem to blur together (the cloying taped accompaniment to his deft keyboard work doesn't help). But most of the songs work well, the lyrics are acute and the stories told with a disarmingly comic honesty that should make people of all persuasions hear the "Voice" and see the light. Even Judy queens.
E-mail Robert Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just one little correction: there is no "taped accompaniment." What he's hearing are the differing sounds of the synthesizer when I switch from straight piano to a piano/strings mix, admittedly not the greatest synth sound in the whole world (and there was no way for him to know this). But, hey, if that's the worst thing he could come up with to say about the show, I'm not gonna complain. Not one bit.
This is a TERRIFIC review. The Chronicle was our major hurdle in San Francisco. On Thursday the Bay Area Review should come out with its notice.