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New York Theater

The Big Voice: God or Merman?

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He is a Catholic from Brooklyn. He is a Baptist from Arkansas. They meet cute on a cruise ship and live more or less happily ever after, dreaming of, respectively, being Ethel Merman and writing songs. So goes The Big Voice: God or Merman?, the affectionate, sentimental, mildly amusing, tuneful, but eventually enervating autobiographical two-hander Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin wrote and are now performing at the haimisher Actors Temple Theatre.

Sitting through their minimusical is akin to going to a party where the entertainment consists of guests telling their life stories. Although the musical interludes that punctuate the plot, which is really a lot of incidents strung together, are accomplished, they don't always further the proceedings.

Brochu, the Brooklynite, is the book writer (and contributed additional lyrics). Broad of beam, jolly, flamboyant, he felt called to the priesthood, where he could expect to become at least a bishop, probably the pope. Sidetracked by a recording of Annie Get Your Gun, his imagination substituted the stentorian voice of Ethel Merman for that of God. The Merm became a lifelong obsession; she's even credited with giving direction to his life.

Composer-lyricist Schalchlin, the Arkansan, also plays the synthesizer. Thin, wiry, restrained, he escaped his evangelical background to become a songwriter ("Country boys don't care for queers/At least until they've had some beers"). With Brochu, he wrote The Last Session, an emotional show about men dealing with AIDS that had a successful Off-Broadway run in 1997. Schalchlin's melodic, country-infused songs reach an apex with the lovely "How Do You Fall Back in Love?"

As actors, the guys aren't Olivier and Gielgud, but their effervescence counts for a lot. Under Anthony Barnao's comradely direction, the evening snaps along. But The Big Voice, despite its likableness, is dragged down by past-their-prime jokes and situations. It's both personal and self-absorbed.

Presented by Murphy Cross, Paul Kreppel, Edmund Gaynes, and BarBar Productions at the Actors Temple Theatre, 339 W. 47th St., NYC. Opened Nov. 30 for an open run. Tue.-Thu., 8 p.m.; Fri., 10:30 p.m.; Sat., 3 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 7 p.m. (No performance Fri., Dec. 1.) (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com.

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