Musical theater loves a good romance. Tevye and Golde, Curly and Laurey, and Porgy and Bess are just a few of the couples that live on in stage history. But to these immortal unions I would add the names of Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin, who in their intoxicatingly fresh and unstoppably delightful musical, The Big Voice: God or Merman?, make a case for themselves as a musical theater couple for a new generation. A case they've certainly won, hands down. (Or, waving with showbiz fervor, as the situation might demand.)
A bravely autobiographical and sincere study of the ups and downs of a relationship (one that careens realistically between ardent love and something short of hate), The Big Voice is the story of two men growing up feeling displaced from who they thought they would be, until they meet each other and things get even more confusing.
In New York, Jim grew up Catholic and was convinced that he would one day become a priest. But his fixation on the Church's ornamentation (costumes), paraphernalia (props), and atmosphere (set and lighting) began to suggest more theatrical leanings, crystallized by his immediate and life-changing obsession with all things Ethel Merman. (He even met her after a performance of Gypsy, which had been condemned by the Catholic Church.)
Like Jim, Steve also longed to hear the "big voice" in his life, but instead of hearing Merman he began to write music. A Baptist from Arkansas, he expected that God's thunderous voice would guide him; instead, he snapped himself on the wrist with rubber bands whenever he began to have impure (i.e., homosexual) thoughts.
The friend who accompanied me to the show—who is at least 25 years younger than Steve—recalled the rubber band technique from his own youth, which suddenly made The Big Voice seem more like a call to arms. With its encouragement to decipher and celebrate the things that (really) speak to us, the show entreats its audience to embrace religious experiences in whatever form they come—instead of "hiding like a superhero has to do," as Steve dourly remembers from his shamed days in the closet.
As the true Merman lover, Brochu is, appropriately, larger than life and more boisterous than his counterpart (both in presence and voice). He is almost ruthlessly gregarious, and many of his bawdy childhood anecdotes are comic gems.
Schalchlin is more reserved, but his crackling, dry line readings and mild-mannered approach intertwine beautifully with his partner's brashness. He also has a sweetly distinctive voice, and his musical delivery hits with a poignant emotional precision. He's particularly moving as he shares the first song he ever wrote as a young boy, in which he aspires to make music his entire life. He's clearly made his dreams come true, and seems honestly bewildered by his good fortune.
Brilliantly and smoothly staged within the walls of the Actors' Temple by director Anthony Barnao, The Big Voice boldly questions the separation of church and theater (and, by extension, the free expression of sexuality). Brochu's lyrics deftly draw parallels between the religious experiences to be found in theaters and those in churches, and yet, when Steve tries to tell a friend that he is gay, he finds it easier to admit to being an atheist.
But for this performance of The Big Voice—which has played in venues across the country and won several awards—Brochu and Schalchlin have, quite literally, taken over a house of worship, and the audience members, seated in their padded seats, were almost reverential at the performance I attended. They rarely applauded after songs, as if they knew that something special was brewing and they needed to absorb every word—a bit like a sermon, but from a pulpit with a built-in keyboard and two men determined to be honest about themselves, their relationship, and the religious experiences that have defined them.