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A CurtainUp Review
Character Man

"David Burns was one of the greatest character men in the history of Broadway. When I was growing up he was my mentor and after I was grown, he was my best friend. He was the original Banjo in The Who Came to Dinner, Mayor Shinn in The Music Man, Horace Vandergelder in Hello Dolly. He won two Tony Awards and an Emmy and nobody knows his name. The curse of the Character Man." — Brochu
Jim Brochu (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Valentine's Day has come and gone, but it isn't too late to open up your heart to Jim Brochu's warmly commemorative and winningly presented Valentine to some of the theater's most cherished character men (and women): Those whose talents and personalities have done more than gild the edges of plays and musicals during much of the 20th century. But wait, this is simply not a grab-bag collection of anecdotes and lore about the first and second-bananas of past generations, but rather a six degrees of separation adventure as personally experienced and shared by character actor Brochu.

Character Man is written and performed by Brochu, whose play Zero Hour  about the legendary Zero Mostel was an Off Broadway hit during the 2009 season. Rejoice, as he has another winner to embrace.

Brochu now uses his life in the theater to engage us with his sometimes by chance, other times through fortuitous meetings and unexpected encounters with such adored greats as Mostel, Jack Gilford, Jackie Gleason, George S. Irving, Sid Caesar, Jack Klugman, Cyril Ritchard, Charles Nelson Reilly, Lou Jacoby, Kathleen Freeman — and, most significantly, the character actor David Burns who was his mentor and friend. These were some whose paths he not only crossed but who served as conduits into a life and a career that has included writing as well as playing a variety of roles on and offBroadway.

The tall, smartly dessed, good-looking middle-aged man with bright blue eyes, white hair and elegantly trimmed beard who stands and sometimes sits perched atop a steamer trunk fit snuggly into the role of haughty Sheridan Whiteside in the recent Off Broadway revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner. I suspect word will quickly get around that there is nothing acerbic or condescending about this version of Brochu. He is not only ingratiating as an acute observer, but acquits himself as someone whom we'd like to spend time with and learn more about. He is accompanied by pianist and musical director Carl Haan, with whom he shares a stage setting modestly designed by Patrick Brennan.

Although intoxicated by Broadway and its wonderful cast of "characters" from his teen years, Brochu was not born in a trunk but in New York City. There, he was encouraged with his obsession for the theater by his widowed, rarely sober father who was an Executive Vice President in a Wall Street firm and seriously dated Joan Crawford. As Brochu recalls "I wanted him to marry her so Joan Crawford could be my mother. Think of all the fun we'd have."

Brochu would return again and again to Broadway to see such shows as The Music Man, A Funny Thing. . . and Hello Dolly which, if you already see the connection, funnily and fatefully serve to make him a life-time fan of Burns. It is Burns who starts Brochu off on a career that would begin not as a performer but from the unique perspective of working for the concessionaires Golub Brothers selling the small containers of orange drink (remember them?) behind the stand in the lobby (believe it and for $18 a week) of the Alvin Theater.

Paying homage to those performers whose faces, personalities and unique talents set them apart from traditional leading men and women, Brochu gracefully and wittily segues from back-stage stories in which he took part thanks mostly to Burns and on to songs made famous by the now legendary. Without resorting to impersonation, he brings out the poignancy of Gilford's "Meeskite," from Cabaret and Robert Preston's motor-mouthed aplomb in "Trouble" from The Music Man , as well as doing an amusingly commemorative riff on Mostel's "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof

A dramatic peak is reached with his deeply personalized "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago. He has the audience roaring with delight at his take on that naughtily sexy and comical gem, "The Butler's Song," from the flop So Long, 174th Street as originally immortalized by a young George S. Irving.

Brochu seamlessly connects his own journey as it intersected with the legends whose faces are projected on film and slides on three screens behind him. Robert Bartley's direction is artfully unobtrusive, even as Brochu's story-telling — including his faux pas-filled introduction to the members at the Players Club — is as smooth and polished as that of any of the legends he is honoring, particularly his beloved Burns whom he recalls died on stage during the out-of-town try-out of Kander and Ebb's 70 Girls 70.

Expect a tender finish as he recalls his father's last request before his death to sing "Give My Regards to Broadway," as he also funnily remembers this: "Last spring I went to see a show at the Alvin Theatre— it will always be the Alvin Theatre to me — I walked into the back of the house and there was the concession stand and a young man being the counter and it was me. So I went up to him to buy an orange drink. . . and I couldn't afford it." I'll wager you can afford a ticket to Brochu's wonderful Character Man . . . see ticket price below.

Character Man
Written by and starring Jim Brochu
Directed by Robert Bartley
Musical Direction: Carl Haan

Scenic/Projection Designer: Patrick Brennan
Lighting Designer: Meghan Santelli
Technical Director and Sound Designer: Sean Hagerty
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Urban Stages Theater, 259 West 30th Street (bet 7th and 8th Avenues)
(212) 868-4444
Tickets: $35.00 (General Admission)
From 02/28/14 Opened 03/05/14 Ends 4/06/14 Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/03/14
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