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Theatre in Review: Character Man (Urban Stages)

Jim Brochu. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Jim Brochu is a professional Character Man -- as anyone who has seen him in The Man Who Came to Dinner or his one-man show Zero Hour, about Zero Mostel, knows -- but he's also a professional fan, burning with love and admiration for the quirky, one-of-a-kind personalities that make the theatre hum. As luck would have it, he happened to grow up among the members of the tribe, first from the vantage point of the orange juice concession that once was a mainstay of every Broadway house, and later in more intimate form. His new one-man show is an ardent love letter to the great character actors of Broadway's late golden age.

The only son of a widower from Brooklyn who drank to forget his hated, but lucrative, job on Wall Street, Brochu's first ambition was to be pope. (He fearlessly documents this with actual photos of his younger self acting out this ambition at home.) But a trip to see The Music Man changed all that. "Theatre was like church -- but with energy," he marvels. Soon, he was writing, producing, directing, and starring in his own school shows. "I gave myself all the best numbers," he says, "including an unforgettable 'Bali Ha'I' and a rousing rendition of 'Give My Regards to Broadway' backed by eight leggy 12-year-old chorus girls that closed the first act." This might seem an odd way to win a father's respect in 1960, but it did the trick; his father decided he was good and let his son pursue his dream of being an actor.

In any case, celebrities seemed to accrue to Brochu's father; in one of Character Man's most amusing early passages, he recounts his father's pursuit of Joan Crawford, an alliance that nearly ended in marriage. "And I pushed them," he admits. "I wanted him to marry her so Joan Crawford could be my mother. Think of all the fun we'd have." He produces another photo and comments, "That's Dad and Joan and me and Joan's two non-abused daughters."

However, as Brochu's father slid into an alcoholic fog, another parental figure emerged in David Burns, the beloved star of Hello, Dolly!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and many others. Burns and Brochu's father were close friends, often sharing Friday night dinners at Toots Shor's. Brochu, enraptured by his idol, attended so many performances of Forum that Burns finally got him a job with the Golub Brothers, of Broadway orange drink fame. Now he was standing in the back of the Alvin, seeing Forum for free. He was also spending plenty of time in Burns' dressing room, which he describes as "a watering hole for character men." At the age of 16, he was hanging out with the likes of Lou Jacobi, Jack Albertson, Hans Conried, and other "Jewish Knights of the Round Table." If these names mystify you, Character Man may not be the show for you; on second thought, go -- you might learn something.

The rest of Character Man consists of priceless stories about Brochu's adventures with this crowd, punctuated with songs from their shows. Here is Burns, a confirmed atheist, complaining about his wife, a Christian Science practitioner: "The whole thing is horseshit, but she never gets sick!" Here is Zero Mostel, reminded by Brochu that he has never forked over an autograph, howling, in his best Biblical manner, "You're not worthy!" Here is Brochu and Burns in the Players Club, when Bert Lahr enters: "Davy said, 'How are you Bert?' Bert said 'Talented.'" Character women are not neglected; there is a lovely tribute to the gloriously hatchet-faced comedienne Kathleen Freeman and a show-stopping anecdote about Ethel Merman and her attempts to direct Jack Klugman's performance in Gypsy.

Musically, Brochu is a confident performer who knows his material inside out. Although he includes such evergreens as "Ya Got Trouble," from The Music Man, and "If I Were a Rich Man," from Fiddler on the Roof, preferred are his choices of lesser-known numbers, such as "The Late, Late Show," a nifty exercise of comic nostalgia via Comden, Green, and Styne, performed by Phil Silvers in Do Re Mi, and "Go Visit Your Grandmother," a delightful bit of fluff that Kander and Ebb inserted into their charming flop 70, Girls, 70. If Brochu has a particular affinity for "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," from Forum, and "It Takes a Woman," from Dolly!, it may be because those songs are associated with David Burns. "Go Visit Your Grandmother" is also connected to Burns, but in a much sadder way, and it paves the way for Character Man's touching conclusion.

Brochu also documents some of his mortifying early career experiences, including his appearance as a singing, dancing raisin in a cereal commercial. (Even that experience introduced him to Barney Martin<, who created the role of Amos Hart in Chicago; this cues a scarily intense rendition of "Mr. Cellophane.") There is also the commercial where he played "a lemon from outer space," a flop Off-Broadway revue titled Unfair to Goliath, and a stint in Los Angeles working for the Disney Organization, an experience that, he notes, can be best understood by reading Dante's Inferno, adding that the chapter on the eighth circle of hell will prove particularly enlightening.

As should be clear by now, Brochu is excellent company, but it should be noted that at the performance I attended, he was still settling into his performance, and the lighting and projection cues were something of a work in progress. The director, Robert Bartley, still has a few details that need attending to.

Throughout Character Man, Brochu refers to a long-held dream, which involves himself, Burns, and the wall of caricatures at Sardi's. When that dream is finally realized, it may bring a lump to your throat. Character Man is a tribute to a generation of performers who were masters of shtick, but Brochu's love for them is real, unaffected, and contagious.--David Barbour

(6 March 2014)

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