BWW Review: With TWO GUYS AND A GRAND at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, Cabaret Veterans Jim Brochu & Steve Ross Evoke the Spirit of Music Halls
Veteran performers Jim Brochu and Steve Ross have known one another since the 1970s, an era when New York was filled with piano bars, cabaret rooms, and nightclubs. Pause for a deep, wistful sigh. Framing their new show, Two Guys and a Grand (last Wednesday night at the Laurie Beechman Theatre), in the kind of friendly antagonism and winking shtick popular during vaudeville, the two very different performers manage to be both broad and classy.
During a rousing jazz age rendition of Irving Berlin's "Pack Up Your Sins and Go To the Devil" from the Music Box Revue of 1922, Brochu objects to Ross's vocal reserve, aptly comparing him to Fred Astaire, while Ross observes that his partner reminds him of the vociferous Ethel Merman. An actual 1966 Merman/Astaire medley from the Hollywood Palace follows. (Here's the original on YouTube below.)
It seems Brochu used to hire Ross to accompany musical theater auditions at $10 a pop. Repartee recalls Friday night gatherings at The Painted Pony where the musician entertained. "At 9:00, he'd play something by Tony Bennett-very butch; by 9:30, we were doing Dolores Gray imitations, and at midnight all hell broke loose," Brochu tells us. Afterward, they'd go on to The Brasserie with its blinding lights and cheap onion soup (free baguettes!) and then perhaps to Jilly's, where Sinatra might be dueting with Judy Garland. "How lucky we were." I'll say.
The evening really lifts off with a duet of Noel Coward's "My Family Tree" from The Girl Who Came to Supper. Playing two princes who talk about their eccentric and scandalous family trees, Ross and Brochu don and discard British accents, ersatz Russian, and rolled Rs. Both sing with an innate shrug.
Next comes a London medley delivered in the original Coward's show by Tessie O'Shea, with Ross executing an upper and Brochu a lower class accent. Those of the audience who know it sing along with a robust, oompah "Saturday Night at The Rose and Crown," which next time might be printed out and set at our places. It's a charming group of old songs, well sung, too rarely heard.
Ross's deeply moving interpretation of "Old Friend" (Gretchen Cryer/Nancy Ford from I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road) is exceptional in its ability to still the room, engendering collective reflection. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (Irving Berlin) emerges a valentine with illusively casual, eminently skillful accompaniment.
Brochu takes humorous credit for being "the prime mover" in Ross's career. Noting he was asked to induct "The Prince of Cabaret" into The Players Club Hall of Fame two years ago evokes the tale of Brochu's own 1970 interview before a membership committee comprised of old 1930s/1940s film stars. The story is evocative and funny with the young actor unable to keep his foot out of his mouth. His "The Late, Late Show" (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green from Do, Re, Mi) reflects gushing admiration. At the start of the evening, Brochu is unusually stiff, facing forward, performing as if on another stage. As the show progresses, he warms and loosens up.
The men then cite two 1970 musicals, I Had a Ball (Jack Lawrence/Stan Freeman) and Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen (Stan Freeman/ Franklin Underwood) as curious for their receptions. (Freeman was a member of their floating nighttime group.) The first, they tell us, was a poorly written show and a success, the second, a musical version of Teahouse of the August Moon, unfortunately produced in the middle of the Vietnam War, a good show and a flop.
From these we hear "I Had a Ball" performed by Ross with a touch of grateful gravitas and "You've Broken a Fine Woman's Heart," delivered by Brochu with a side of Grade A schmaltz. A duet of "Call Me Back" (Stan Freeman/ Franklin Underwood), the epitome of vaudeville, is peppered with zingy one liners. All these two need are oversized boutonnieres, hats, and canes.
This evening closes with the first song Brochu and Ross ever sang together, John Kander/Fred Ebb's wry "Go Visit Your Grandmother" from 70 Girls 70. It's jaunty, wry "Give her her due sonny!" and just right.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto