According to the calendar, it’s just the beginning of Autumn, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Valentine’s Day based upon the amount of heart currently found on display on the St. Germain Theatre at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company, which opened on Sunday, September 20.
The big heart belongs to an actor/singer/writer named Jim Brochu, who dazzled audiences at this same theatre several years ago with his one-man take on the life and accomplishments of the great comic actor Zero Mostel, who Brochu resembles in stature and talent. This new work, “Character Man,” which enjoyed a well-received run off-Broadway earlier this year, is Brochu’s loving tribute to a particular type of actor, the character man, which he says that Websters’ defines as “one who plays either a leading or supporting part but displays unusual characteristics or peculiarities .”
Brochu’s 90-minute, intermissionless show focuses particularly on those character actors who achieved fame in Broadway musical comedies, thus providing an opportunity for Brochu to perform theater songs by Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jerry Herman, Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Leonard Bernstein, with the very able Joshua Zecher-Ross on piano. Although Brochu will regale the audience with tales about his acquaintanceships with the likes of Jackie Gleason, Lou Jacobi, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Hans Conreid and Barney Martin, he spends a majority of the evening concentrating on his close friendship with a once-familiar Broadway face, the late David Burns, perhaps best known as the original Horace Vandergelder in “Hello, Dolly” and later for literally dying of a heart attack right on stage in Philadelphia at the end of one of his big production numbers in Kander & Ebb’s “70 Girls 70.”
Burns served as mentor to the teenage Brochu, who were introduced to each other by Brochu’s widowed father, a successful Wall Street executive who’d rather spend an evening hanging out with his hard-drinking Broadway cronies at places like Toots Shor’s and ogling the chorus girls and rising starlets. Burns was one of the elder Brochu’s closer friends and his 12-year old son immediately connected with the theater veteran, visiting him nearly every Saturday between the matinee and evening performances of whatever show Burns happened to be in.
It is through this lifelong friendship that Brochu will eventually meet many of the great character actors, who, in addition to those mentioned above, would include George S. Irving, who is still going strong today at age 90, Alfred Drake, Roland Winters, Frank McHugh and James Cagney. Burns also helped get his young fan his first job in the theater—as the orange drink vendor. Once Brochu started to audition for shows and commercials, this position always served as a viable fallback whenever he would find himself out of work. It also enabled him to catch some of the greatest (and not so great) stage performances of the late 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.
While Brochu did appear in a number of off-Broadway shows and commercials (including a memorable appearance as a singing California raisin), it was Barney Martin, Amos Hart in the original run of the musical “Cabaret” and Jerry’s father throughout the run of the TV series “Seinfeld,” who one day took Brochu to lunch, sat him down and said, “You’re very good, but you won’t work until you’re older. Character Men are always older.”
Brochu also recalls his friendships with such character actors as Hartford native Charles Nelson Reilly, who would become one of Brochu’s teachers, and the great Cyril Ritchard, who dubbed Brochu “Sir Jimmy the Juiceboy” during the run of “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.” And he doesn’t neglect the great character actresses, from Celeste Holm to Mildred Natwick, paying tribute with the song “It Takes a Woman” from “Hello, Dolly,” as a multitude of familiar female faces are projected on a screen on the back wall. He reminisces about a scene study teacher of his who had a face everyone recognized from her indelible performances in hundreds of films but few people knew her name. In her late 80’s, she finally achieved award recognition on Broadway as Kathleen Freeman made her long-postponed Main Stem debut in the musical version of “The Full Monty.”
Brochu still retains a strong and pleasant singing voice, which he utilizes to great advantage in such numbers as “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” from “Forum,” “Meeskite,” a tribute to Jack Gilford from “Cabaret,” “Mister Cellophane,” Barney Martin’s show-stopper from “Chicago,” and, of course, Zero Mostel’s “If I Were A Rich Man,” from “Fiddler.”
But it is Brochu’s tender relationship with Burns that remains the crux of the play. It is clear that Brochu loved the man, who offstage and on had a well-earned reputation as quite the character. “Character Men” also demonstrates Brochu’s sense of humor which is never denigrating toward the people he talks and writes about, but which instead is used to demonstrate the intelligence and wit of this special band of merry players. The play is quite similar in style to his two previous winning theatrical recollections, “Zero Hour,” in which he lovingly conjured up the heart and spirit of the star of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “The Big Voice: God or Merman,” his exploration of the impact that the legacy of Ethel Merman had on his desire to pursue a career in show business.
Brochu has been aided in this light-hearted but genuine look back at some of the more significant influences in his life by his director, Robert Bartley, who incidentally is the creator of the extremely-popular annual fund-raising production, “Broadway Backwards,” which affords Broadway singers the opportunity to try their hand at singing famous show tunes written for the opposite sex. With a upturned theatrical trunk, that doubles as an orange juice stand, two audience-facing theater seats, an arm chair, a dressing table, a stage’s ghostlight, and the ever-important movie screen upon which famous faces and scenes from any number of historic Broadway productions will be projected, Bartley and Brochu keep the proceedings moving right along, easily jumping from recollection to recollection, with the musical numbers developing naturally from Brochu’s tales.
It would be nonsense to think that this production would only appeal to those who recall some of the great character actors of the stage or to folks interested in the history of the American theater. Instead, this is a production that anyone can enjoy, as it entertainingly recalls a lost period of the theater when “characters” were indeed “characters” who provided vital support to the leads in some of the most popular and melodic musicals of all time. It’s also a show about the role that a mentor can play in a stage-struck young boy’s life, particularly a boy with a loving, but frequently neglectful father, who instead of moping around his home, opened himself to the friendship of some legendary actors who believe it or not, enjoyed and benefited from his friendship as well.
“Character Man” plays at the St. Germain Stage at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass, through Sunday, September 28. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 413.236.8888 or visit the theater’s website at www.barringtonstageco.org.