Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Jim Brochu's Character Man: An Evening of
Brochu takes us back mostly to the 1960s and tells us stories about larger than life character actors who delighted as comedians in some of the best and most popular Broadway musicals, and sings the songs which they introduced. A particular treat is Brochu's song selection, which features a fair number of lesser known songs which are largely forgotten (although I'm certain to get an argument on that from Talkin' Broadway theater mavens who can sing the rarest songs without missing a beat). Brochu met all of the character men to whom he introduces us, and saw each of them perform. Some became mentors to him, and others were either friends or acquaintances. It is the nature of things that as time goes by even the best of them are fading from memory. This is particularly sad because, whether or not they rose out of vaudeville or shared the style of the great vaudevillians (along with their singing chops), and whether they were playing starring or featured roles, they had a larger than life star quality that is very rare in today's conservatory trained musical stage performers.
Most prominently featured in Character Man is David Burns. Burns worked on the musical theatre stage for more than three decades beginning in 1941, but it was in the 1960s that he reached the pinnacle of his success, and that is when Brochu's father, who had a successful investment agency and a taste for the bottle and theatre people, introduced his teenage son Jim to Burns who would become his mentor. Brochu begins his musical memoir singing "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" which Burns introduced (with the assistance of Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford and David Carradine) when he created the role of Senex in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. How were we to know then that we were in the middle of a glorious era whose like would never be seen again? In the second act, Brochu will sings "It Takes a Woman" which Burns introduced when he created the role of Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly!. However, it is even more pleasing when he sings a little remembered musical delight entitled Go Visit (Your Grandmother) which was originally sung by Burns. There is a bittersweet story that goes with it. If you know who wrote that song and for which show it was written give yourself a pat on the back. If you know the story that goes along with it, you must be a star in Peter Filichia's Broadway Academy.
Let's not forget some of the other great character men whom Brochu knew, will always love, and memories of whom he shares with us. Was there ever a more lovable character man than Jack Gilford? Although it is not a fit for Sam Mendes' conception of Cabaret, Brochu reminds us of Gilford's Herr Schultz and the gentle charm of his story of the "Meeskite." Add in Robert Preston (whom I had never thought of being a character man) and his performance in The Music Man and, of course, Zero Mostel. The Catholic born Brochu sings the most Yiddish sounding more than "biddy-biddy-bys" that any Tevye ever sang. He tells a great Zero Mostel story that reveals a valuable creative contribution that the brilliant performing artist made to Fiddler despite his penchant for being a destructive pain in the butt. Notably, Brochu invokes the memory of George M. Cohan when he tells a story about singing "Give My Regards to Broadway" to his Irish dad.
Brochu also recalls the wonderful George S. Irving who happily is still with us. Brochu delightfully performs "The Butler's Song" from (do you remember?) So Long, 174th Street. It may well be as hilarious a "list" song as you are ever likely to hear. It is also a song remembered only by aficionados, and it is delightful to hear it again.
Cyril Ritchard (Captain Hook) and, quite appropriately, Jackie Gleason ("Little Green Snake" from Take Me Along) are also represented here among others.
Character Man doesn't match the brilliance and emotional resonance of The Big Voice or Zero Hour. There is a lack of detail and no sense of progression in the storytelling. This is particularly vexing in regard to matters concerning Jim Brochu's show business career. His account of selling orange juice in the concession stand at the back of theatres in which he repeatedly watched performances of his favorites is amusing, but we want to know more. I'd like to know more about his beloved "Davie" (David Burns). Yes, Burns was a loyal, fun loving companion full of bonhomie and sporting a witty potty mouth, but did he have family or a home? (Consider that Sam Levine was a misanthropic intellectual who lived alone at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel.) Brochu also is more constrained in his movement and bounce than he was in the aforementioned shows. Where is that wonderful side step that Barney Martin employed when performing Mr. Cellophane when he created the role of Amos in Chicago? Seen just once, it is unforgettable. Brochu gives us a delightful, intelligent, kind of hoity toity rendition of "The Butler's Song." However, a more flamboyant George S. Irving interpretation of it would be more appropriate and rewarding.
It is a year since Jim Brochu introduced Character Man at the Triad on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. At that time, the announced goal was to take it Off-Broadway. It is a most entertaining, unique piece of musical theatre-cabaret. I would go anywhere to see the wonderful Jim Brochu. However, at this time, while I recommend Character Man for its considerable pleasures, it has the uncomfortable feel of a work in progress which has thus far failed to fulfill its potential.
Character Man continues performances Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm, Sunday at 2:00pm and 7:00pm through October 6, 2013, at American Theater Group at Hamilton Stage, 360 Hamilton Street, Rahway; online: ucpac.org; Box Office: 732-499-8226
Character Man by Jim Brochu; directed by Robert Bartley
Performed by Jim Brochu/ accompanied by Kevin B. Winebold (piano) and Perry Orfanella (bass)