Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.
Urban Stages (Frances Hill, Founder, Artistic Director and Peter Napolitano, Producing Director) is presenting the world premiere of “Jim Brochu Character Man,” directed by Robert Bartley with extraordinary set and graphics by Patrick Brennan (including landscape paintings) and wonderful music direction by Carl Haan. Brochu, who did an abbreviated version earlier at the Metropolitan Room, has written the book for this extraordinary production which opens with a title song that was written by Roger Edens for Ethel Merman and has additional lyrics by Brochu as we see projected photographs of famous character actors on the stage including Phil Silvers, Lou Jacobi, Jack Gilford, Bert Lahr, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Jack Albertson.
When the lights come up, Brochu, in black suit and bright red tie, announces that this will be a salute to all those familiar supporting faces whose names we may not remember. The play with music actually focuses on Brochu’s relationship with two men: Tony Award winner David Burns (“The Music Man,” “Hello, Dolly”) and with his own father, a successful stock broker. His father, who knew Burns, took him to see “The Music Man” and he fell in love with musical theater. After seeing “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Forum” the first time, he would buy a seat in the last row of the Alvin Theater to see the show every Wednesday matinee, then would race backstage to sit in Burns’ dressing room and be a witness to all the great comedians who came back stage to congratulate Burns and share comic bits. Breaking into “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid” we see Burns, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford and John Carradine on the screen as Brochu takes great pleasure in singing that funny number about the use of women as maids! The audience shares his joy.
When he reaches the age of 16, Burns tells him to stop buying tickets…he’s going to get him a job in the theater! And he gets one, as an employee of the company that sells orange juice at intermission! His widowed father drinks himself into a stupor every Friday night and takes him, with Burns, to Toots Shor where the young Brochu is thrilled to meet Jackie Gleason! At one point Brochu is jumping between orange stand jobs at ‘Fiddler on the Roof,” “Hello, Dolly,” and “Take Me Along.” We relish in the backstage stories of Mostel and we get a full out performance of “If I Were A Rich Man,” Gleason’s “Little Green Snake” and also Gilford’s “Mesquite.” He also gets a commercial job dancing as a raisin and his partner is Barney Martin who later introduced “Mister Cellophane” in the original company of “Chicago.”
Brochu goes to Hollywood and gets a job at Disneyland. He is bad at auditions and is told to go see an acting coach named Kathleen Freemen. There follows a loving tribute to Freeman, Jerry Lewis’ favorite foil, who made her stage debut at 82 and was nominated for a Tony! Comden & Green and Styne’s “The Late Late Show” is sung against a montage of great silver screen ladies, familiar faces with scrolled names! It’s brilliant .
When his father is dying he asks Jim to sing for him…not an Irish ditty but “Give My Regards To Broadway.” He learns his handsome father lost his chance in show business when he didn’t go into Astoria Studios for a screen test. Instead he picked up a flyer that runners were needed on Wall Street and began that career. When Burns dies (on stage to laughter and applause) Brochu sings a heartfelt “Who Can I Turn To” mourning his death. At Burns’ memorial he is sitting in the second to the last row and the man sobbing behind him is Gleason!
Brochu’s appropriate closing number is his college friend Stephen Schwartz’s beautiful “For Good” sung against all those faces we now recognize.
The entire production is an absolutely wonderful theatrical experience even if you are too young to remember the many character actors and actresses that Brochu salutes. A sold out house stood and cheered at the end of the show.
“Character Man” continues at Urban Stages, 259 West 30 Street, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7 PM, Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 3 PM and 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM through March 30. There will be an added performance on Tuesday, March 4 at 7 PM and no performance Thursday March 6. Call SmartTix.com or 212 868-4444 for tickets. For more information visit www.urbanstages.org or call 212 421-1380.