Hell’s Kitchen, just west of the Broadway theater district, was hell for new musicals in November. “Evil Dead,” “Mimi Le Duck” and “How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes” have been joined by the questionably titled “The Big Voice: God or Merman?” The latest arrival has made it safe once again to venture across Eighth Avenue. “The Big Voice” is unconventional and perhaps unlikely, but this story of a mismatched couple, musical comedy-style, is funny, touching and warmly endearing.
Think of a “[title of show]” as told not by Generation X-ers but a pair of aging boomers who both wrote and perform the show. Librettist Jim Brochu, the funny one, somewhat resembles Harvey Schmidt; composer-lyricist Steve Schalchlin, the gentle straight man, looks like a tall Tom Jones.
“Big Voice” is a boy-meets-boy story, but with a difference; for starters, the two not-so-cute thirtysomethings meet on a third-rate cruise ship in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. Jim, an extroverted Catholic from Brooklyn, has just dropped out of the seminary to return to showbiz (his biggest professional credit is as a dancing raisin on a national TV commercial). Steve, pianist in the ship’s fluorescent-lighted Fantasy Lounge, is an introverted Baptist from Arkansas who has similarly given up dreams of the ministry.
Act one is a funny hour’s worth of exposition. In act two, Steve develops AIDS. (The text, which is apparently factual, tells us that he has been living with the disease since 1994.) As a lifeline, the pair write a musical: “The Last Session,” which ultimately enjoyed a five-month run Off Broadway in 1997. Unlike in “[title of show],” we don’t watch the author-actors here create “The Big Voice” and bring it to the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival (where both musicals preemed). Rather, they present a very human story of this unconventional yet very real family. Two lost souls who meet, two almost-losers who win. Brochu keeps us in stitches with his showbiz shtick, and the pair always remain friendly and sympathetic.
Subtitled “a musical comedy in two lives,” the show is more of a play with songs than a musical. Most of the score — played by Schalchlin on an electric piano — sounds like something you might hear at a contempo church service, with words like “God,” “bless” and “heaven” liberally sprinkled through the lyrics. There are a few more traditional musical comedy songs, which are quite effective: Steve’s “I Want to Make Music” is strong, Jim’s “You Are a Stranger” even more so. Director Anthony Barnao keeps the piece moving along briskly.
Production is presented at the Actors Temple Theater, newly converted from a tiny, storied synagogue on West 47th Street. Production values are minimal, presumably because the space is still used for services, but here the play and players are the thing.
As for the big voice of the title, the creatives do not take that name in vain. When Jim falls in love with his first Ethel Merman album at age 13, his father unexpectedly calls his good friend — Merman’s father — and gets Ethel’s house seats. (Father says she is “in ‘Gypsy'”; Brochu thinks it must be a papal pronouncement: Ingipsi.) Thus, Merman herself is a recurring character in “The Big Voice,” with a small but influential role. Teenage Jim, sitting next to Ethel at Sardi’s: “Should I be an actor or a priest?” Ethel: “Well, kid, how the hell should I know?”