The Big Voice: God or Merman?
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 20, 2006
Steve Schalchlin is known for the musical The Last Session, which ran off-Broadway about a decade ago: it's about a rock musician with AIDS who has decided to commit suicide—but before he does so, he reunites with his band for what turns out to be a life-affirming (and not final) day of jamming and music-making.
Jim Brochu, Schalchlin's real-life partner, collaborated on The Last Session and has made a living (mostly in LA and regionally) as an actor and writer.
Now these two are performing in a two-man musical of their own devising, The Big Voice: God or Merman?, at the newly-rigged theatre in the Actors Temple on West 47th Street. It's a modest, reasonably entertaining affair: it traces Brochu and Schalchlin's lives and careers from their boyhoods (respectively, in Brooklyn and Arkansas) through the present-day. Their 20-year relationship is fodder for the spiciest moments, which revolve around their meeting on a cruise ship (where Brochu was vacationing and Schalchlin was working as pianist) and their breakup (after The Last Session's success, Schalchlin acquired a sort of groupie named Mark who temporarily derailed their otherwise steady and happy life together). There are some jokes, some songs, and some good-natured reminiscing. Brochu explains how encounters with Ethel Merman changed his life. Schalchlin explains how he "came out" (at least to himself) while attending college to become a Baptist preacher.
What's not explained is how Schalchlin has lived with AIDS these last ten years, though it is mentioned that he nearly died a decade ago, and that his prescribed meds made his behavior erratic and turned him diabetic; we're left wondering how it is that he's up there on stage, singing and clowning so (apparently) healthfully. It's also not explained how these two came back together after Mark pulled them apart. And it's also not explained what these guys—whose only prominent theatre credit is The Last Session—have been doing with themselves during 25+ years in show business.
Without any of this kind of thing to provide a backbone to the show, The Big Voice becomes just a string of anecdotes and songs, delivered by the outsized Brochu in a style strongly reminiscent of Nathan Lane and the more modest Schalchlin in a thin and often uncertain voice. Their pals may enjoy this at a cocktail party, but members of a paying audience may well be left wondering where the play is.
I was hoping that some purpose might be supplied by Brochu and Schalchlin's example: they're a middle-aged gay couple of long standing, and could well be inspiration and/or exemplar for an audience that almost never gets to see images of such a couple in any medium. But alas, the two men barely interact on stage and almost never touch: the intimacy and familiarity of completing each other's sentences or, God forbid, kissing, is absent from this play, and for me at least was sorely missed.
So what we've got here is a moderately diverting couple of hours in the company of some moderately talented, but otherwise seemingly pretty ordinary, guys. And—allusions to God and Merman notwithstanding—that's about all.