NYMF Reviews: The Big Voice - God or Merman? and Three Sistahs
THE BIG VOICE: GOD OR MERMAN
It is sadly ironic that in a musical about how music can fulfill lives and bring people together, the score is the weakest aspect of the show. The Big Voice- God or Merman, which premiered two years ago and toured extensively before joining the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is a sensitive comic dialogue about two men who share a love of God, musical theatre, and each other. In alternating scenes, they chronicle their early lives as aspirants to the Church, and their later lives as lovers and lovers of musical theatre.
Growing up in separate worlds, Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin had nothing in common except a strong devotion to God and a passion for music. Finding love with each other after their individual battles with both the religious and cultural condemnations of homosexuality, the two men had to weather many storms, both external and internal, to hold onto their lives together.
The stories are not exactly new, but the energy, joy, and wit that Brochu and Schalchlin bring to the stage is infectious, funny, and tenderly poignant. Unfortunately, for all of its substantial earnestness and emotional honesty, the show is painfully uneven. Jim Brochu tells his side of the story with charming and witty monologues, while Steve Schalchlin tells his side mostly through songs of his own composition. Brochu's monologues keep the energy high, but many of Schalchlin's songs drag it down. While the music is good, many of the lyrics are flat and serve strictly as narrative, a sort of solo-rececitive. (A notable exception to this would be the stirring power ballad "How Do You Fall Back Into Love," which is breathtakingly beautiful.)
But what the songs lack in grace, the book makes up in style. Snappy, funny, and ultimately poignant and uplifting, the story of the challenges these men have faced just to be where they are today-- together onstage and off-- is wonderful to see. Brochu, as a professional actor, is understandably the stronger performer of the two, but the chemistry between him and Schalchlin is palpable, and genuine. This is a love story that can speak to anyone who has struggled to hold onto a challenging relationship.
One must admire the creators of Three Sistahs for having the courage to take a classic in such a new direction. The new musical, which uses Chekhov's masterpiece as a touchstone, though not a basis, for an original drama about African-American identity, sisterhood, and family, premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
In 1969, with the deaths of Malcolm, Martin, and two Kennedys fresh on everyone's mind, idealistic Irene, morose Marhsa, and proud Olive gather to bury their brother Andre, a victim of Vietnam. They have already lost both of their parents, and as they struggle through the aftermath of their third funeral in three years, long-buried emotions erupt and threaten what remains of their family. It's emotional stuff, and many issues are raised: familial duty, patriotic duty, pride, power, and respect. No small task, then, to weave these many timeless topics into a short musical that takes place in one day.
The good news is that creator Janet Pryce, lyricist and librettist Thomas W. Jones II and composer William F. Hubbard respect their characters and their issues enough to treat the emotions honestly. The bad news is that, even with interesting characters and issues, the musical as a whole is not terribly involving. Smaller in scope and more intimate than Chekhov's play, the musical does not seem to have a very clear direction, and wanders almost at random from topic to topic.
Hubbard's score uses primarily gospel and R&B to set the mood, and while the songs are good, they are not particularly memorable. The characters and their issues are fleshed out more in Jones' effective book, which ranges in style from overlapping dialogue to near-poetry. Lyrical and powerful though the book may be, however, it still drags in moments, and could use a little trimming and tightening. As the titular sisters, Cheryl Alexander, Daria Hardeman, and Shelley Thomas sing beautifully and work very well together, giving and taking energy easily.
It is no easy feat to bring Chekhov's nineteenth-century aristocrats into this modern age, and to make Olga, Masha, and Irina's dilemmas seem contemporary. Three Sistahs rises to this challenge, and is effective in many ways. With some minor revisions, it will be an excellent dramatic study of a family, and an era.