The set-up: Jim Brochu's one-man musical tribute to those unsung supporting players of Broadway's golden age, Character Man, radiates such a warm autumnal glow, you want to rush right out and buy every original Broadway cast album Brochu so lovingly remembers. (If you're already a Broadway baby, you have these albums, probably on vinyl.)
The execution: Young Brochu was at ground zero when the acting bug got him, selling orange drink at the back of the Alvin Theater during the run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim's first solo show that starred legendary Zero Mostel, with its classy second-banana line-up that included John Carradine, Jack Gilford, and David Burns, Brochu's mentor and nominal third star of this show.
How Brochu got to the concession stand is a fun story in itself, but just one of many nimble jaunts he takes down his sweet and tuneful memory lane. As you may know, character men are not stars, but do the grunt work propping up the romantic leading men, usually with sly, split-second comedy timing and a well-aimed spritz from old vaudeville's seltzer bottle. To be a character man requires "peculiarities," winks Brochu, usually because fame and whatever fortune accrues comes late in a career. But unlike a star's, the character man's career can endure and deepen, with the help of health and a good agent.
Take David Burns, a veteran's veteran, and Brochu's father's best friend. The original Banjo in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), it wasn't until the early '60s when his star truly took off, winning two Tony awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical in the landmark musicals The Music Man and Hello, Dolly. He never stopped working, dying onstage in Philadelphia during the out-town run of Kander and Ebb's 70, Girls, 70. That's the way to go out for a character man, Bonchu boasts wistfully, with laughter and applause.
As a kid, sitting in the corner of Burns' dressing room, Brochu listened and learned as the great and near-great came backstage and dissed each other and the business. It was the greatest education in the world. He was hooked at once.
Throughout this gentle "I was there" memoir, Brochu pays tribute to a raft of other players, supporting and higher, who made an indelible impression on the young man: Zero Mostel (who Brochu impersonated so perceptively in his previous one-man show Zero Hour), Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, George S. Irving, Cyril Richard, Barney Martin, Lou Jacobi, Bert Lahr, Charles Nelson Reilly, Kathleen Freeman. But none had an influence as did his father, a widower and alcoholic, who loved actors and had a permanent Friday night bar seat at Sardi's, the watering hole of the Great White Way. "I never knew my father drank, until I saw him sober." Rim shot!
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A bon vivant of the old school, the elder Brochu encouraged his son and practically shoved him into Burns' arms. He dated Joan Crawford in the '60s. "Who wouldn't want Joan Crawford for a mother?" Brochu excitedly adds with tongue firmly planted in cheek. In a lilting scene, Brochu recalls his father's death when he tells his son how he almost became an actor, turning down an offer for a screen test at Paramount's Astoria Studios for a respectable and more lucrative position on Wall Street. Requesting a song from his son, Brochu croons a soft, touching rendition of "Give My Regards to Broadway." It's a quietly profound testament. (Adam Stout, at the piano, accompanies Brochu with consummate skill.)
Other pertinent musical numbers are sprinkled throughout the stories, and Brochu imbues the songs with old-fashioned brio. With irrepressible style, he channels Mostel in his signature "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler; all four old Forum vets in "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid;" Barney Martin in "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago - the song's theme of ordinary, overlooked people is an apt description of how character actors are known to the public; Jack Gilford in "Meeskite" from Cabaret; and a deliciously blue comic ditty that George S. Irving put across with absolute deadpan, "The Butler's Song" from So Long, 174th Street, a forgotten musical bomb adapted from Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing that lasted 16 performances.
The verdict: Brochu seems to have known everybody in the business - and what would a gossipy backstage trek be without a pinprick to Ethel Merman? Sitting on a large theater trunk or sidling into a theater seat on the side of the stage-within-a-stage set by Jodi Bobrovsky, under Christina Giannelli's crisp limelight, Brochu weaves his theatrical spell. His kind-hearted tribute to Broadway's days gone by, to the indelible guys and dolls who made the shows so memorable, is as exhilarating and infectious for us as these character men were unforgettable idols and mentors for him. They changed his life. The love is real. So is our thanks.
Character Man continues through February 15 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Purchase tickets online at www.stagestheatre.com or call 713-527-0123. $19-$41.