Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin inThe Big Voice: God or Merman?(Photo © Bruce Bennett)
Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in
The Big Voice: God or Merman?
(Photo © Bruce Bennett)
[Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.]

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You never know who will change your life. It could be Ethel Merman, or maybe a man you meet on a cruise ship in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. In The Big Voice: God or Merman?, Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin chronicle their lives through autobiographical songs and stories. The gay couple has been together for nearly 20 years, and their experiences -- both separate and together -- are engagingly related in this musical two-hander.

Early in his life, Brochu aimed to become the first Pope from Brooklyn. However, his most powerful religious experience occurred the first time he listened to Ethel Merman on the cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun. His father took the 12-year-old Jimmy to see The Merm in Gypsy, and he even got to meet her after the show. Brochu knows how to tell a story; he keeps the audience in stitches as he regales them with tales of his past. Describing his early acting career in television commercials, playing dancing raisins and lemons, he wittily observes: "Before long, I was known as one of the most dependable fruits in show business."

Schalchlin, on the other hand, grew up in Arkansas, the son of a Baptist minister. He attempted to follow in his father's footsteps but found himself losing his faith as he struggled with his homosexuality. While not as strong an actor as his partner, Schalchlin bares his heart and soul through his songs; his music is intensely personal yet sure to strike chords of recognition for many audience members. He sings about his desire to write music, being in the closet, religion, living with AIDS, and much more. One of the strongest numbers is "How Do You Fall Back in Love," an incredibly moving duet that distills the heartache, longing, and depression that resulted from the couple's split in the late 1990s and the cautious optimism and deep-rooted love that led to their reconciliation 80 days later.

Directed by Anthony Barnao, this show is an absolute delight. It's a great follow-up to the award-winning musical The Last Session, which featured book and direction by Brochu, music and lyrics by Schalchlin. The two men form a partnership that is obviously fulfilling on a personal level but is also a perfect artistic match.

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Rejected from the New York International Fringe Festival, Fringical! A Fringical!! has found its way to the NYMF. The musical parody features music by Eli Bolin, lyrics by Sam Forman, and a book by Sam Forman and Thomas Kail. Presented in a concert staging, the production is often quite clever as it skewers not only the Fringe but also Broadway. Unfortunately, its jokes wear thin long before the performance is over.

The plot, such as it is, involves three Fringe organizers (played by Michael Cyril Creighton, Emilee Dupré, and Amanda Huddleston) who are looking to replace a show that dropped out at the last minute. "The festival opens in weeks," one laments, "and these shows take days to write!" Their salvation could come from Hollywood superstars Nat (Anne Jacoby) and Ken (Patrick Heusinger), who think the Fringe might offer a refuge from the banality of their movie careers. Meanwhile, aspiring performance artist Deb (Jessica-Snow Wilson) and her Momma (Billy Eichner) are searching for a place to stage Deb's abstract performance pieces. Rosie O'Donnell (Patch Darragh), Michael Riedel (a puppet voiced by Neil P. Stewart), an amorous intern (Ryan Vaughn), and a narrator named Walter the Bobbie (Drew Callandar) also figure in the proceedings.

Theatrical in-jokes abound. There are obvious paeans to past Fringe hits including Urinetown, Matt and Ben, and Debbie Does Dallas, but even frequent theatergoers will be hard-pressed to get all the references. The lyrics manage to do a heck of a lot of name-dropping, from Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weissler to Off-Off Broadway legends Holly Hughes and Kate Valk. The show's music also pays tribute to the styles of various composers -- most notably Frank Wildhorn, who seems to have directly influenced Fringical's catchiest tune, "Our Love Is Like a Revival."

The cast is energetic but the show's humor is played too broadly. Director Thomas Kail would do well to rein in and focus his performers, who are prone to over-the-top lampooning. An exception is Eichner, whose Momma is a hoot because the cross-dressed actor grounds his portrayal with a strong sense of character. Fringical! has potential; with some work, it could be to the Fringe what Forbidden Broadway is to the Great White Way. But the show's creators need to do a number of edits and rewrites in order for that to happen.

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Promotional art for And the Earth Moved (Graphic Design © Helen Jen)
Promotional art for And the Earth Moved
(Graphic Design © Helen Jen)
Natural disasters serve as great metaphors for emotional crises. In And the Earth Moved, with book, music, and lyrics by Timothy Huang, main character Will Chen (Thomas C. Kouo) undergoes a breakdown following the Taiwan earthquake of September 21, 1999. "The earth moved," Will sings, "and I nearly fell through." While the show has an interesting premise, it fails to live up to its potential; the majority of the songs are not very memorable, and the character relationships are insufficiently developed.

A struggling composer based in New York City, Will makes a living by writing commercial jingles. He has a love-hate dynamic with his parents (Erin Quill and Orville Mendoza), who live in Taipei. They disapprove of his moving in with Jane (Lisa Howard), a Caucasian woman whom he's been involved with for the past four years. Although mom and dad want to visit him in the States, Will has been putting them off for some time. However, when the quake hits, Will's world is literally shaken; he doesn't know if his parents survived. In a daze, he wanders the streets of New York, accompanied by a young girl named Jenny (Constance Wu) who seems to know much more about Will than she should.

Directed and choreographed by Nina Zoie Lam, the show is presented in a black-box staging with minimal props and set pieces. While that can be effective, Lam's blocking is unimaginative and the musical is slackly paced. Kouo is too low-key as Will, and the character's more emotional moments seem forced. Wu has a much more vibrant energy as well as a strong, clear singing voice.

Though And the Earth Moved contains some spoken dialogue, the show is largely sung-through. This leads to some rather awkward phrasing as the words that the characters intone are smooshed into the melodic lines. Only a few of the songs stand out: "Wan Fat Chow's," with the ensemble as waiters in a clown-themed Chinese restaurant, is peppy and exciting. The gospel-inflected "At the Light House" also scores. The musical pokes fun at Asian American stereotypes, particularly in the Wan Fat Chow section, but it doesn't really break any new ground. The feel-good ending seems somewhat contrived and merely glosses over the character conflicts raised in the show without actually resolving them.