CABARET LIFE NYC: Jim Brochu's CHARACTER MAN Transforms From Compelling Cabaret Show Into Triumphant Musical Theater Piece
If you do believe in spooks, to paraphrase the character actor Burt Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, then you'd probably gather that the spirits of our dear departed greats of Broadway are likely denizens of the theaters where they achieved their greatest successes, perhaps at the Neil Simon Theatre (formerly The Alvin), for example. But if the late, great character actors of 20th century musical theater are haunting any house these days it is most definitely the intimate and quaint theater space at Urban Stages (on 259 West 30th Street). This is where acclaimed veteran actor/singer Jim Brochu--who as a teenager watched iconic acting masters ply their trade at the Alvin Theatre, where he sold orange drinks for five cents--has just started his run (until March 30) as a magical musical medium in a nightly one-man-show-as-séance that conjures these performing poltergeists, who are assuredly more Beetlejuice than Jacob Marley.
The phantoms of the theater that Brochu has reawakened include Zero Mostel, Robert Preston, Jack Gilford, Barney Martin, Cyril Ricthard, Jackie Gleason, and especially his mentor David Burns, and all of them must be bursting with pride over their former character acting protégé as he honors their memories and talent in story and song. Brochu's new show, Character Man, is a powerful musical memoir in which he self-deprecatingly becomes the character-acting sidekick in his own autobiography, and presents the men he learned from and loved as the stars of the story. With this compelling show, Jim Brochu is not only paying it back, he's paying it forward at the same time.
Brochu first presented Character Man last June as a 75-minute cabaret show at the Metropolitan Room. But you'd have to be a bigger nudnik than Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock to not realize this story had the depth to transcend cabaret and be a stirring Off-Broadway show. (I said as much at the time in my unabashed rave BroadwayWorld review found here.) In this 90-minute version of the show, Brochu's pithy script--filled with wonderful personal memories, an insider's musical theater history and charming anecdotes--is even more layered and possesses an ideal mix of humor and pathos, the two qualities all the character men Brochu celebrates could convey on stage. A seasoned raconteur, Brochu not only goes into more detail on his relationship with the two most important men of his young life--his hard-drinking father and the actor David Burns--he also seamlessly weaves in a section that pays tribute to more than a dozen superb character women. It's during this segment where the show takes full advantage of overhead film and photo projection (designed by Patrick Brennan), offering a montage of vintage images of legends such as Kathleen Freeman, Pearl Bailey, Celeste Holm, and about a dozen more great ladies of the theater.
On the music side, only one song has been cut from the cabaret version (and it isn't missed), while two short ones have been added at points in Brochu's story that will leave you misty-eyed without feeling manipulated. Brochu's barotone is as strong as ever and he couldn't have chosen better songs that suit his vocal style, inform his story, and represent the underrated talent of these legendary musical theater actors (Carl Haan at piano provides supportive musical direction). With clever direction by Robert Bartley--who has Brochu jauntily moving from a perch on a large trunk mid-stage, to plush red theater seats on one side and to a dressing room makeup table on the other--and subtle and stylish lighting from Meghan Santelli, Urban Stages becomes a theater which--as Brochu might define it--"is like a Church, but with energy." The ghosts of the great character men will be energetically haunting Urban Stages for as long as this gem of a show plays. And once you are in on Jim Brochu's musical séance, you too will believe in spooks. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Character Man will be at Urban Stages (259 West 30th Street) until March 30th. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at smartix.com or call 212-868-4444.