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Chicago by John Olson

The Big Voice: God or Merman?

With the controversy of same-sex marriage occupying headline status over the past month, The Big Voice: God or Merman? couldn't be more perfectly timed. It's a highly entertaining exploration of the role of religion and spirituality in the lives of its two gay male writer/performers (Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin) and a window into their relationship as life partners for nearly 20 years. The story of their lives, from adolescence through the production of the first musical they wrote together (The Last Session), is told on a bare stage with songs, alternating monologues, and a small amount of dialogue. Originally produced in Los Angeles in 2002, where it won the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical score, the authors hope to eventually take it to New York for an Off-Broadway production.

A comparison of Ethel Merman's pipes to the voice of God might seem like a too-easy show business joke, but in Brochu's narrative it has legitimacy. He tells the audience of his boyhood ambition to become not merely a priest, but "the first Brooklyn-born Pope." His resolve begins to weaken when, as a teenager, while shopping for a recording of Pope Pius singing Gregorian chants, he casually buys a copy of the original cast album of Annie Get Your Gun. Upon hearing Ethel belt out "There's No Business Like Show Business" he believes he's heard a new calling. Sharing this discovery with his father, the old man casually mentions that he knows Merman quite well and takes Jim to see a matinee of Gypsy from her house seats. After the performance, Jim meets the diva and she shows him around the stage of the Broadway Theater. Facing an empty house lit only by a ghost light, he begins to suspect his destiny is more likely to involve places like the St. James Theater than St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Without resorting to caricature or impersonation, Brochu easily conjures the spirit of Merman. He tells of a chance meeting with her at a hospital where he's visiting a sick friend. Sharing his vocational confusion with her, he asks what he should do with his life. The divine voice answers, "How the hell should I know?"

Schalchlin tells of his similarly spiritual boyhood, in a heavily Southern Baptist-dominated Arkansas town of 500. His stories are less glamorous than Brochu's, but effectively told through his songs. He and Brochu eventually meet as adults on a cruise ship where Schalchlin is performing as a lounge singer-pianist. It's love at first sight, and they exit stage to close act one with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" over the sound system.

Act two covers their lives as a couple. Their partnership is nearly ended when Steve is diagnosed with AIDS and given only a short time to live. Drug therapies and "hope" keep him alive, but the side effects of the drugs make him so difficult to live with that they break up. They reconcile after nine months and Jim cares for Steve as he regains strength. During this convalescence, Steve begins writing songs and, together with Jim, builds them into the musical which becomes The Last Session, a semi-autobiographical story of a singer-songwriter dying of AIDS and planning his suicide.

The two have an easy, self-deprecating humor in the fast-paced first act and a witty script that provides lots of genuine laughs. Their sincerity and candor keep the show engaging in spite of the fact that stories of gay adolescence and struggles to come out or stay closeted are not particularly new ground. When act two begins to address Steve's sickness, the tone appropriately shifts, but with some difficulty. Brochu and Schalchlin avoid cliches by focusing on the impact of the drug cocktail's side effects rather than spending too much time on Steve's physical condition. However, they could provide a more gradual transition from their self-effacing humor to the sharing of heavier emotions. It took me a while to become fully empathetic with their experiences after the first hour of laughing with them at themselves. Still, there's no denying that the emotional stakes of act two are significant. The age and gender-diverse audience at the performance I attended was genuinely moved.

The score of, by my count, eleven songs is accessible, diverse and contemporary in a Jason Robert Brown sort of way. Credited equally to both Schalchlin and Brochu (with "additional lyrics" by Marie Cain), it includes some lively comedy numbers as well as several beautiful and touching ballads, including "Beyond the Light," "Keep Me Near You," and "How Do I Fall Back in Love." Schalchlin is at the keyboard throughout and has a majority of the vocals while Brochu, the better actor, delivers more of the monologues.

The Big Voice is a moving and affirming piece that succeeds without becoming sentimental or maudlin. It tells how we can give or receive divine inspiration in the unlikeliest of ways and that we should not be surprised if the voice of God happens to shout "Sing Out, Louise!"

The Big Voice: God or Merman? plays the Theatre Building, Chicago through March 28. For ticket information, call 773-327-525 or visit www.theatrebuildingchicago.org. A San Francisco engagement is planned for April.

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-- John Olson



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