Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in The Big Voice: God or Merman?(© Ed Krieger)
Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in
The Big Voice: God or Merman?
(© Ed Krieger)
Ethel Merman can arguably be rated as the greatest musical theater diva of all time. From all reports, she was a very down-to-earth broad who had a mouth like a truck driver, but the fact remains that the literal translation of "diva" is "goddess." So the title of Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin's musical two-hander The Big Voice: God or Merman? is apt and amusing.

Previously seen in L.A. and in the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, the show chronicles the lives of the co-authors/life partners, who play themselves. One of the most refreshing aspects of The Big Voice is that, though Brochu and Schalchlin are beyond middle-age, the show has a wonderfully sharp, post-modern feel that calls to mind similar pieces crafted by much younger theater folk -- e.g., [title of show]. Brochu, with his outsize presence and terrific comic timing, is a natural-born entertainer; Schalchlin is much more low-key but is the better singer. These two make a strong case for the old saw that opposites attract, and the contrast between their stage personae is highly entertaining.

Jim was raised as a Catholic and dreamed of becoming the first Pope from Brooklyn. But all of that began to change when, in 1959, he first heard Merman's unique voice on the original cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun. His father took him to see Merman in Gypsy, which was then running on Broadway, and the experience was life-altering. (Jim describes theater as "like church, but with energy.") Meanwhile, Steve was growing up Baptist in the South and trying to get the hell out of there; as he notes in one of the show's many excellent songs, "Country boys don't care for queers / At least until they've had some beers." He joined a Baptist rock band and, later, a show band that played Atlantic City. But his theatergoing experience was limited to seeing Bob Crane and Ruta Lee in The Owl and the Pussycat, even as Jim was attending Broadway shows starring the likes of Laurence Olivier, Helen Hayes, and Vivien Leigh. (His imitation of Leigh's curtain call is priceless.)

Steve eventually got a job as a cruise ship entertainer, working in the "Fantasy Lounge" of the S.S. Galileo -- the sister ship of the Andrea Doria. He met Jim on that ship, somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. Not long after, Steve moved into Jim's New York apartment, also known as the Museum of Musical Theater. The pair eventually relocated to L.A., and Steve was diagnosed with AIDS. He seriously considered killing himself but, instead, he and Jim wrote The Last Session, a heartfelt musical that brought them back to NYC for an Off-Broadway production. (They ask us to picture them handing out flyers at the TKTS booth: "It's a musical about a songwriter dying of AIDS who wants to commit suicide!") The show later had a run in L.A. and won several awards, but the greatest honor came when a woman told Jim that seeing it had literally saved her life: If the main character, Gideon, could find the courage to keep on living with AIDS, so could she.

The Big Voice: God or Merman? is the first show to play in the famed Actors' Temple on West 47th Street, and it marks an auspicious beginning for the venue. The Brochu-Schalchlin story, which includes an account of their brief breakup, is told with great humor and candor -- and the songs are every bit as wonderful as you'd expect from the team that wrote The Last Session.

Anthony Barnao directs the writers/stars with aplomb. Clifton Taylor provides basic but effective scenic elements and lighting, though there was one major flub with the lights at the performance I attended. (I suspect a faulty dimmer.) Sound designer David Gotwald offers ear-catching snatches of Merman at various points in the proceedings, and costumer Elizabeth Flores gets her moment to shine when Jim parades around the stage in grand clerical garb.

There are all different kinds of love stories. This one is as much about love of theater as it is about a 22-year relationship between two very talented men. Alternately hilarious and deeply moving, The Big Voice: God or Merman? should not be missed.