Love as Salvation

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin share their hilarious and touching story at Invisible Theatre

Now, here's a real odd couple. Jim is an extroverted Brooklyn Catholic who, as a boy, dreamed of becoming pope, mainly because he liked the clothes. Steve is an introverted Arkansas Baptist who, as a boy, toyed with the idea of evangelism until he learned that queers aren't welcome at the seminary, even if they never stray far from the closet.

Jim grew up going to Broadway shows starring the likes of Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. Steve once saw a dinner-theater production featuring Bob Crane.

Jim and Steve meet on a cruise--in the Bermuda Triangle, aboard the sister ship of the Andrea Doria. Surely, the relationship has about as much of a chance of success as Ethel Merman did when she tried to sing quietly.

It was Merman, actually, who turned Jim's interest from the papacy to show business; upon Jim's first childhood visit to Broadway, to see Merman in Gypsy, he realized that the theater "was like church, but with energy." Yet Jim, like Steve, never quite gave up on the idea of salvation. All they had to do was figure out how to achieve it without the dubious help of organized religion.

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin recount their story themselves in The Big Voice: God or Merman?, a mixture of songs, zingers, tall tales and emotional candor now playing at the Invisible Theatre. It's a love story both hilarious and touching, though not without crises, and it keeps an audience engaged even though it's obvious that everything will turn out all right.

Including Steve's struggle, since 1994, with AIDS. I mean, the guy is standing right there, thin but full of quiet vitality, so there's not much suspense about his fate. Did he succumb during a hospital crisis a decade ago? Um, obviously not. Did the unpleasant new personality he got as a side effect of his medication destroy his relationship with Jim? Well, Jim's standing right there, too, so they're probably OK together now.

So the show isn't so much about what happens in the end as what happens along the way. Even so, that question in the title--God or Merman?--always dangles over the proceedings, almost forgotten in the second half, but demanding an answer by the final curtain. And an answer, it gets, a satisfying one that isn't at all contrived.

The Big Voice is subtitled "a musical comedy in two lives," and it could only be pulled off through the collaboration of two utterly dissimilar people. Brochu, who wrote the script, does most but by no means all of the talking, regaling the audience with ridiculous, endearing stories about how as a child, he wanted more than anything a record of Pope Pius XII singing Gregorian chant, or how he broke into television being cast in commercials as a dancing raisin and a lemon from outer space. "Within a month," he declares, "I was known as one of the most dependable fruits in show business."

Schalchlin wrote the music and most of the lyrics, and he seems more comfortable sitting behind his electric piano, telling his own story in song. He employs the generic ballad style common in small musicals these days, pleasant enough but not as individual. Schalchlin's most memorable songs are a well-constructed piece about a childhood encounter with a flashy evangelist, and a duet with Brochu in which they puzzle out how to put their shattered relationship back together again.

Schalchlin has the better voice of the two; Brochu's is more, well, Mermanesque, but, unlike Ethel, he doesn't settle for a dull stand-and-deliver routine. He acts every phrase, and all in all, his style is that of a barely restrained Zero Mostel. (As a matter of fact, Brochu is about to open his one-man show about Mostel, Zero Hour, on Broadway, and Invisible Theatre is presenting a single, sneak-preview benefit performance of the show at 3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 7; tickets for that will cost $35.)

Ultimately, Jim and Steve don't really have to choose between God and Merman. In many ways, religion and show business are the same thing, and not just in the crass ways that quickly come to mind. Whether or not Jim and Steve love Jesus, as the Baptists back in Steve's hometown would insist is necessary, they love each other. And that's the best foundation there is for salvation on this earthly plane.

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