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The Big Voice: God or Merman?

Also see Sharon's review of My Crown of Glory

The only disappointing thing about The Big Voice: God or Merman? is that there are some people in the world who will refuse to see it because the relationship it recounts is a homosexual one. Not only that, but the show dares to suggest that God is not found exclusively in a church, but can also be found in a theatre or in our hearts. If writer/performers Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu decide to take their show on the road, as they should, they can be guaranteed walkouts and protests, and will likely end up preaching their message to their own theatre-loving, gay-friendly choir. And that is a shame - both because the people who most need to hear Schalchlin and Brochu's story will stay away from it, and because it's just good theatre.

The Big Voice
Jim Brochu & Steve Schalchlin
The Big Voice is Schalchlin and Brochu's autobiographical story, told with a sprinkling of dramatic license and a full complement of songs. The first act covers their lives right up through their meeting and coming together; the second act focuses more on Schalchlin's battle with AIDS, which ultimately led to their creation of the award-winning musical, The Last Session. Within the first few moments of The Big Voice, Schalchlin and Brochu establish the show's quick-paced and funny tone. As each man tells the story of his childhood, the other briefly takes on the roles of minor characters, or provides narration. This method of storytelling allows each man to comment (either in word or gesture) on the other's story, and adds an extra layer of humor to the show.

Brochu and Schalchlin know their own strengths, and they have designed their show to play to them. Brochu is the more extroverted of the two, and the better comic storyteller - he gets most of the lengthy narratives. Indeed, this Brooklyn-born Catholic is not above moments of overplayed flamboyance in the interest of comedy. Schalchlin, the Baptist from Arkansas, displays his Southern manners and restraint, and seems a little more comfortable sitting behind his keyboard. He is the better singer of the two, and while Brochu wins the audience over as raconteur, Schalchlin prefers to tell his story in song. Schalchlin has a lovely light tenor voice, and he doesn't let the fact that he is providing his own accompaniment prevent him from raising his hands from the keyboard to add a gesture if necessary for emphasis.

The way the show is designed to show off Schalchlin and Brochu's individual talents is best illustrated by a sequence in which the two compare their experiences as homosexual teenagers. Schalchlin, who found it difficult to be gay in a small community of 500, sings a song called "The Closet," in which he recounts painful experiences which would be very difficult to discuss with an audience without the protection of music. At the same time - between the verses of Schalchlin's song - Brochu tells of his father's decision to send him to a military school, where, he tells us to great laughs, his father's plan to "solve" his homosexuality was defeated by sequestration with hundreds of horny teenage boys. This juxtaposition of raw emotion with outrageous humor works; it actually keeps the show from getting too depressing. Even though Brochu and Schalchlin lived through some very difficult times, this show is more about the "living through" than the difficulty, and the liberal dose of jokes throughout even the darker points keeps the play on an even keel.

Brochu and Schalchlin's score ranges from cute, playful numbers which demonstrate a lyric-writing wit, to honest expressions of emotion or belief, to folksong-like story songs. Perhaps the most impressive song in the show is of the latter variety: "James Robertson," Schalchlin's childhood story of attending an evangelist's revival meeting. It's a perfectly constructed song - initially leading us to believe that Schalchlin found religious meaning from the evangelist, but ending with him finding it elsewhere. Not only does the song tell a wonderful story, it makes for a great parallel with Brochu's simultaneous discovery that Pope Pius's recording of Gregorian chants didn't give him chills the way Ethel Merman's Annie Get Your Gun did. Not all of the show's songs are as successful. "Near You," a love ballad which is only played for a few verses, is not a memorable piece. This is especially problematic as the song closes the first act, and both the song and the few jokes which follow it lack the effectiveness of the rest of the songs and jokes of the act - ending the act on what is perhaps its weakest material.

Both men venture into the other's preferred medium - Schalchlin occasionally scores with an unexpected moment of dry wit, and Brochu can carry a tune for a verse or two. But one wonders how this show would play if Brochu and Schalchlin handed off their parts to more well-rounded actors. Certainly other performers would be more technically proficient with the material - the songs would be better sung and the acting would lack any awkward moments. But something would also be lost; Brochu and Schalchlin lived through the stories they are telling - it was their quest to find God, their relationship that was formed, their sickness and fear, and their ultimate triumph. That Schalchlin is healthy enough to perform this show is surely reason enough for Schalchlin and Brochu to do it; that they are willing to stand up and perform it despite the intolerance of others is another. But beyond that, there's just something endearing about watching these two guys honestly telling us the story of their lives, and hoping the audience will take something of value away from it. We will.

Blue Sphere Alliance in association with AppleArts Productions and BonusRound Productions present the world premiere production of The Big Voice: God or Merman? Written and Performed by Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu (additional lyrics by Marie Cain and Bev Sykes) with Robert Mandan as "The Big Voice." Directed by Anthony Barnao. Lighting Designer Ben Ainlay; Stage Manager Jeramiah Peay. Publicist Philip Sokoloff; Program Designer Missy Doty; Front of House Marlana Hope.

The Big Voice: God or Merman runs at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood, Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:00 p.m. through November 17. Tickets are $20. Call 310-852-9111 for tickets. For information, see www.thebigvoice.com.

Photo by Jeramy Peay


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- Sharon Perlmutter




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