BWW Reviews: Jim Brochu's CHARACTER MAN is a Triumphant, Tour de Force Tribute To Iconic Musical Theater Stars
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
About halfway through Jim Brochu's Saturday, June 29 performance at the Metropolitan Room of his new show Character Man, I realized I was witnessing what was probably the best cabaret show I'd seen this year, and perhaps was one of the best in my almost three years of reviewing cabaret. By the time the show ended, I had changed my mind. Not because the show fell apart in the second half, but because what Jim Brochu had created (and is opening tonight at the Broward Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs, Florida, where it will be performed until August 11 as an out-of-town tryout before an eventual New York run) was more than a cabaret show. Character Man is a delightful, extremely well-crafted, Off-Broadway theater piece that is destined for a run that might rival his critically-acclaimed one-man Zero Mostel tribute show, Zero Hour, which played throughout the country between 2006-2012 and earned Brochu 2010 Drama Desk and Helen Hayes Awards.
Brochu's Character Man (which actually debuted at Stage 72/The Triad on October 1, 2012) could be considered a musical sequel or companion piece to Zero Hour, especially given that the magical, mercurial Mostel is one of the iconic character men to whom Brochu is paying tribute. In this tour-de-force performance, Brochu honors all the other great musical theater actors, many of them unsung, who he idolized from his teenage years through his adulthood, including Jack Gilford, Jackie Gleason, Robert Preston, George S. Irving, Cyril Richard, Phil Silvers, Barney Martin, Bert Lahr, Lou Jacobi, Charles Nelson Reilly, and most of all, his mentor David Burns, who is almost the star of this show. While a few of these versatile singer/actors, like Mostel, Preston, Gleason, and Richard, did shine in starring roles, for the most part they were all the solid supporting structures upon which some of the greatest Broadway musicals were built. The only elements that prevented them from being superstar leading men of the stage were matinee idol looks and glorious tenor voices. Other than that, most of them were the whole package--terrific actors with great comedic timing who were also fine singers and could steal scenes like pickpockets in Oliver. They were men clearly worthy of such a loving tribute.
Decked out in stylish black suit, with a black and white striped tie and red pocket square, the white-haired and white-bearded Brochu takes the stage looking like the Don Draper character from the TV series Mad Men if he were Santa Claus. At the start of his show, with Musical Director Kevin B. Winebold at the piano, Brochu defines character men as "peculiar" and admits that he's peculiar as well. But nothing is peculiar about this performance, during which Brochu hits all the right notes from the first bars of his brief eponymous opening song (for which he wrote the lyrics to music that had been written by Roger Edens as the opening to Ethel Merman's nightclub act).
Character Man (directed by Robert Bartley, produced by Jamie Cesa, with Jeramiah Peay as production manager) is packed with just the right amount of everything that goes into making compelling cabaret or an engaging Off-Broadway one-man show. While there are only 11 songs (besides the opening number), they are so rich and well-delivered, it seems like more. (Brochu's original Musical Director John Fischer wrote the arrangements.) Brochu is a fine raconteur and the show is deeply personal without being self-indulgent, while his self-deprecating humor is revelatory and charming. The balance of script to songs and the tone of the show is almost perfect, and the photo presentation of the character men (some with Brochu in the shots) adds depth to the stories and isn't overdone. And throughout Brochu's performance, he is so humble and reverential, it's almost as if he becomes a character man in his own show, willingly taking a supporting role behind the performers he so loves. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
With the help of actor David Burns, Brochu got his first show business job selling orange drinks at the Alvin Theater during the 1962-64 run of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, which featured Burns as "Senex," and had Mostel and Gilford in the cast, among a group Brochu says, "Were like the Jewish Knights of the Round Table. In that show [Forum], there were a stage full of character men and you got to see them all for under a dollar." For his Burns song tribute, Brochu jauntily sings Stephen Sondheim's "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from Forum, before reminiscing about his often drunk father during "Little Green Snake," Jackie Gleason's song from the 1959 musical Take Me Along. But Character Man really takes off with Brochu's "Ya Got Trouble," Robert Preston's classic number from Meredith Wilson's The Music Man (in which David Burns won a Tony Award as "Mayor Shinn"). The frenetic song's tempo was tempered a bit to account for Brochu's age and limited room for on-stage movement, but he had no trouble delivering one of musical theater's most challenging songs, which turned into a energetic sing-along in the midst of a celebrity-studded audience.
There have been so many actors who've played the cuckolded husband "Amos" since Kander & Ebb's Chicago opened in 1975 (including John C. Reilly in the memorable film version), that most people don't remember the role was created by Barney Martin, who later became Jerry Seinfeld's TV dad. Brochu's lovely rendition of the self-deprecating "Mr. Cellophane" makes the song sound like a metaphor/anthem for unsung Broadway Musical character men and supporting actors in general. The great George S. Irving introduced the hilarious lyrics of "The Butler's Song" during the 1976 Joseph Stein/Stan Daniels musical So Long, 174th Street (based on Stein's play Enter Laughing), but for this show Brochu has channeled Irving's performance and given the number his own subtle touches. (See video previous page.) Equally funny, but also sensitive and tender, is Brochu's take on "Meeskite" (the Yiddish word for "quite unattractive"), that helped Jack Gilford win a Tony as Best Actor for playing Herr Schultz in the original production of Cabaret.
As for "If I Were a Rich Man," Zero Mostel's transcendant number from Fiddler on the Roof, what is there to say except, "Lord who made the lion and the lamb, you decreed Jim Brochu was born to sing this song." It is a simply awesome rendition filled with nuance and showmanship, and where Brochu gets to show off a bit of booming baritone.
After nailing three more numbers including "The Late Late Show" (the Phil Silvers song from the 1960 Jule Styne, and Comden & Green musical Do-Re-Me), "Captain Hook's Waltz" (Cyril Richard's Tony Award-winning performance as Featured Actor in 1954's Peter Pan), and "Who Can I Turn To?" (another Richard number from 1965's Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint--The Smell of the Crowd, for which Richard won a Tony as Best Lead Actor), Brochu ended the show on a more contemporary and personal note with "For Good" from Wicked. As photos of the great actors he cherishes are flashing on screen behind him, he sends a musical love letter/thank you note to the character men who provided his inspiration and paved his way:
I've heard it said
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are lead to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you.
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.
And anyone who sees this triumphant show from an incredibly accomplished performer will certainly be changed for good.