If you’ve dreamed of sitting in the upstairs bar of Sardi’s to hear journeymen trade war stories about Broadway’s past, you can get a taste at Jim Brochu’s new one-man show, Character Man.
The veteran New York actor-playwright, who triumphed in 2009 with Zero Hour, spends a couple of acts at Broward Stage Door recollecting his meetings with famous and not-as-famous stalwarts from Jackie Gleason to Jack Gilford, Zero Mostel to David Burns. Interspersed, he sings the signature songs that these gentlemen and some women made famous like Gilford’s Meeskite from Cabaret and Mostel’s To Life from Fiddler on the Roof.
It’s an exceedingly pleasant amble in the affable company of Brochu, whose career has intersected on stage, in dressing rooms and taverns with two generations of actors who thrived because of their talent rather than their less-than-matinee-idol looks.
It’s a clear labor of love for Brochu who wrote the piece and has revered these folks since he was a star-struck teenager meeting Burns (Horace Vandergelder in Hello Dolly! and Senex in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).
Brochu wisely doesn’t imitate these performers, although some inescapable flourishes creep in. He performs them as if he were doing the role himself. Nowhere is this more evident than in three numbers from Fiddler on the Roof. Although we know he can channel Mostel, this Tevye daydreaming of being a rich man is Brochu’s unique creation,
Some numbers are well-known such as Mr. Cellophane, the song introduced in Chicago by Barney Martin as the woebegone cuckold, years before he became well-known as Seinfeld’s dad on the TV show. Others are forgotten gems such as The Butler’s Song, introduced by George S. Irving in the 1976 flop, So Long, 174th Street.
Compared to his volcanic recreation of Mostel in Zero Hour, Brochu is a gentle giant exuding a reserved gusto and a quiet charm. With a few exceptions, he stands still at center stage, perhaps waving his arms for emphasis or doing a couple of off-hand dance steps, but that’s it.
As a playwright, Brochu has a nice way with a vaudevillian quip such as recalling his theater-loving father: “He was handsome, charismatic and I never knew he drank until I saw him sober.” The tenor turns touching as he recalls how Burns died literally on stage so that “the last two sounds Davy Burns ever heard were laughs and applause.”
The show is slated to move to the York Theatre Company off-Broadway in September. Based on the reaction of the audience at Stage Door this weekend — people who likely saw these performers when they were alive — it’s destined to have a long, solid run.