Sunday, January 07, 2007

Everything's Comin' Up Merman

"The Big Voice: God or Merman?" at the Actor's Temple, January 6, 2006

I had seen several reviews on the show, as well as many mentions on some of the blogs that I follow. It was time to see it. (Spoiler Alert)

The show reviews (revues?) the life that Jim and Steve have put together, despite the challenges of church, because of the love they share, and because of the unwitting support of Ethel Merman. They recount their lives from childhood, demonstrating how paralyzing a religious upbringing can be to a gay man's youth. As young men, they both figure out the connection between church and show business, Robes = Costumes, Bishops = Actors, Liturgy = Script. They come from particularly different backgrounds.

Steve, from the buckle of the Bible Belt and the son of a Baptist preacher, discovers early his talent for music. He sings "I Wanna Make Music," a very sweet song about the first song he wrote as a child.

Jim is a good Catholic boy from Brooklyn whose childhood dream is to be the first Brooklyn-born Pope ("Pope Jimmy!"). Desperate for his first true religious experience that will validate and begin his ascent to Pope-dom. A trip as a teenager to Lourdes and Rome with a lack of a miracle in the former and disregard from Pope Pius in the latter leads him to begin questioning his career plan.

Steve tells the Southern Baptist version with evangelists, culminating in active disregard from James Robertson at a stadium revival. Both are looking to find the way to spend their lives providing help and spiritual support to others.

Jim finally discovers what he's looking for following his first listen to the cast album of "Annie Get Your Gun." "You're either an Ethel Queen or Judy Queen - I signed up for the Ethel camp." It turns out that his father actually knows Miss Merman, and soon Jim is standing onstage with Miss Merman following a matinee of "Gypsy." This moment secures his belief that a Broadway theatre is " church, but with energy." She continues to be an unknowing catalyst in Jim's life until her death in 1984.

Jim seems to have had a better school experience in the all-male military school (with all the opportunities one might find there), while Steve suffers in the closet well into college. Both are now questioning how the God they were raised to know can allow them to be so miserable ("Where is God?").

At the end of Act I, they finally meet on the SS Galileo (sister ship to the Andrea Doria) where Steve is the on board pianist in the "Fantasy Lounge." He begins playing "Falling in Love is Wonderful" from "Annie Get Your Gun" to which Jim immediately sings along. Within weeks they are living together in NYC.

Act II begins with Steve's family visiting the boys for Christmas for the first time. They write their first song together as a present to Steve's mother, "Christmastime Around the World."

What has been quite a light and funny show suddenly turns dark and touching. The boys have moved to Los Angeles. Steve has contracted "it." It is Mother's Day, 1994 when Jim has to call to tell Steve's mother that the prognosis is very dim. A rather funny appearance by Anson Williams (Potsie from Happy Days) in the hospital emergency room gives Steve the motivation to survive ("I didn't want the last celebrity I ever saw in my life to be Potsie.") This and some goading from Jim inspire Steve to channel his anger into producing songs that will become a show, "The Last Session." Basically autobiographical, it tells the story of Gideon, a songwriter with AIDS and how he finds a reason to live. The show goes on to award-winning productions in NY and LA.

Trouble enters again when "Mark," (one of the NY producers?) takes Steve under wing. Apparently this is Mark's modus operandi, collecting composers from season to season. This combined with the side effects of Steve's medication drive the two apart after the NY production of "TLS" closes. Jim stays in NY and Steve returns to LA. Only the sinking of the SS Galileo is enough to draw them back together, "How Do You Fall Back in Love?"

The show comes to a close when, during picketing of the Dallas production by a Fred Phelps-like group led by Steve's college roommate. Steve observes that the roommate "...thought he was a sower, but he was a scarecrow." He thought he was sowing the word of God, but he was really scaring people away. During this confrontation, a young woman steps forward and thanks Steve and Jim for saving her life. She had been diagnosed with AIDS and was planning ton commit suicide on her next birthday. A friend took her to see a production of "The Last Session" and she figured that if Gideon could find a purpose to live for, so could she.

As performers, Jim is the stronger of the two. Steve does have some very tender moments in song, particularly in "Where Is God?" and "How Do You Fall in Love Again?"

I can't remember seeing a more personal glimpse into the lives of the performers telling their story, certainly not "Confessions of a Mormon Boy" and not even Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays." Thanks to Steve and Jim for sharing this intimate tale. I wish you a long and successful run.

1 comment:

Steve Schalchlin said...

Thank you for the very detailed and complimentary review. Here's the line you paraphrased, "I didn't want the last celebrity I ever saw in my life to be Potsie."