Brochu’s ‘Character Man’

1 Feb

brochu (525x350)

By JOHN DeMERS

A “character man,” as described by Broadway veteran Jim Brochu, is an actor who probably won’t play the lead in any show but plays the second- or third-fiddle in virtually every show, usually with quirky and delightful touches that make the audience remember everything except his name. Brochu should know. Like the stage heroes in the engaging one-man show he’s currently performing at Stages, he has been a “character man” for decades.

This under-90-minute, no-intermission encounter is movingly autobiographical, especially in those sections dealing with his childhood in Brooklyn, his apparently alcoholic but beloved father who always had a bit of frustrated actor in him, and his earliest work (selling orange drinks) in a theater in that magic land called Broadway. Yet Character Man is also a tribute, to the actors who either inspired Brochu or (like David Burns) specifically helped him at each point in his career. Happily, a handful of these did manage to become household names, like Zero Mostel, Jack Albertson and Jack Klugman (usually thanks to movies and TV, more than theater,) or at least household faces, like Jack Gilford. Despite a long and honored career, Gilford’s face is most familiar from a series of TV commercials for Cracker Jacks.

The show is simple enough: Brochu speaking from the heart directly to his audience, an activity made even more natural by the fact he wrote the show. What keeps things moving, in addition to near-constant laughs, are songs sung to spirited piano accompaniment by Adam Stout – loosely strung together from the shows of John Kander and Fred Ebb, Meredith Willson, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Sondheim and even a final, touching flourish of Stephen Schwartz. In some cases, Brochu makes clever effort to fit these songs into his storyline, but he is also a persuasive and endearing enough cabaret performer that we welcome each new song and sigh with delight the moment we recognize the strains of something familiar.

One of the most impressive aspects of Brochu’s performance in Character Man is how he easily channels the long-dead men he’s talking about. He seldom promises (or delivers) a fully developed impression or impersonation, but with each guy Brochu’s voice and physical presence change before our eyes. This is particularly noteworthy with Bert Lahr (yes, he of Cowardly Lion fame), since in Brochu’s anecdote he utters only one word. But it’s one word of totally Bert Lahr.

The one (and oh-so-welcome) exception to the no-impression rule is Zero Mostel. Since Brochu has created a cottage industry with his one-man show called Zero Hour about the star of The Producers on film plus onstage classics like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (with Jack Gilford, no less) and Fiddler on the Roof, he nails Mostel every time the guy’s name is even mentioned. It’s uncanny, until you realize – well, of course he can. Brochu’s near-complete rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man” places this marvelous performer before our eyes once again. It, like the show that surrounds it, is a grace note worthy of a true character man.

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