Are You There, Ethel?

Cardi's Restaurant, AIDS, Pope Pius XII and a Baptist salvation "circus" from Arkansas are all part of the strange equation of Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu's oddly tender The Big Voice: God or Merman? There is no logical reason why the unabashedly intimate autobiographical musical should work as well as it does. The schmaltzy, feel-good tale about love conquering all and gay boys thriving on show business is as common as it gets. But Schalchlin's music rolls along with pop tunefulness and lyrics -- about, say, Catholic women who long for birth control -- that are often laugh-out-loud funny. And Brochu's easy jokes about love, religion and showbiz glow with a generous spirit. In the end, it's the sweet, almost heartbreaking honesty of the performer-writers that makes this night of theater irresistible.

The premise of this mishmash of songs, jokes and storytelling is that religion and showbiz are the same thing. Brochu, who was born Catholic in Brooklyn, longs to be pope when he grows up. He spends his boyhood afternoons practicing his pontiff waves and sends off for an album called Pope Pius XII's Greatest Hits. Clear across the country, in backwoods Arkansas, Schalchlin is busy getting "saved in a football stadium." In "James Robertson," one of the best Billy Joel-like tunes of the night, he narrates his experience as a ten-year-old boy who stumbles upon a razzle-dazzle evangelist show one Southern night. As with most coming-of-age tales about religion, both boys are disappointed in their quest for an earthshaking, lights-flashing, I-see-God experience. Brochu even travels to Rome with the old ladies of the Rosary Society hoping to hear the "big voice" of God, but not even the pope rocks his world. Back home, Schalchlin is eventually hurt by the traveling evangelists' brassy shows.

Brochu makes his first big showbiz discovery when he discards the pope's anemic recording of Gregorian chants. Disgusted with the pontiff's whiny, sickly voice, Brochu pulls out the freebie attached to his purchase. When Ethel Merman's "Annie Get Your Gun" blares out from the scratchy record player, the lights actually do start flashing and the world really does stop turning. It's a theatrically sacred moment. In Ethel's big awe-inspiring voice Brochu finds the religion he's been looking for. He becomes a bona fide "Ethel Queen," devoted to one goddess.

We follow the boys' sexual awakening -- they know they're "perfect saints" on the outside but "odd" on the inside. Here the story gets bogged down in a familiar marshland of sentiment, but Schalchlin's Arkansas story salvages some real poignancy with "The Closet," a predictable song made haunting by the composer's lovely melody. Meanwhile Brochu is getting "fixed" at military school, where he meets more boys than he could have dreamed of back home in Brooklyn. That his nighttime liaisons are with the same boys who beat him up during the day is no surprise.

One of the funniest and most heartfelt scenes is when Brochu and Schalchlin first meet. Schalchlin, who both sings and accompanies every tune in this production on his lively keyboard, began his career entertaining in the "Fantasy Lounge" of a cruise ship. Brochu makes great fun of the utterly unromantic environment of the cruise ship bar with its "blinding fluorescent" lights and icy temperatures. But despite the uninspiring atmosphere, their love blooms, although Schalchlin doesn't even know who Ethel Merman is. Their budding romance is rendered with a self-deprecating, almost silly joy.

Act II stumbles some as it moves away from coming-of-age into Schalchlin's struggle with AIDS. Here the story loses focus. Bouncing from illness to career struggles to sexual affairs, both the songs and the narrative skip over too much territory, not giving any of it enough time to develop. And the central question that the production starts with -- where can we find God? -- is all but lost in these anemic scenes. Eventually the story makes its way back, but the ending feels forced and saddled with unnecessary sentimentality.

Even with the weak second half, Brochu and Schalchlin, under the direction of Anthony Barnao, manage to pull off the material with convincing confidence. The seasoned Los Angeles performers, who created the award-winning off-Broadway musical The Last Session, cast a surprising spell that makes this show charming in spite of its failings.

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Lee Williams