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A CurtainUp Review
Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living in Paris
There's little doubt that Brel would have felt at home here. The chain-smoking, edgy-voiced Belgian singer dominated the European artistic landscape from the late 1950s through the late 1970s with his French language songs of pathos, raw energy and startling honesty about the darkest corners of the human heart…and the ways tragedy and comedy curiously mix within our everyday lives. On first listen one might be tempted to dismiss this as tiresome sentimentality, but going on first impressions with Brel is a serious mistake, as those theatergoers who flocked to see the first appearance of this show at the Village Gate theater in 1968 soon discovered. That show, featuring English translations of Brel's songs by his friend Mort Shuman (who also starred in the original cast), helped define the Off-Broadway scene in the late 1960s, and was so successful that it made its way both to Broadway and even the silver screen before exhausting its potential.
That kind of success might be hard to follow, but give this new revival of the show about ten minutes of your time and you'll find that the producers have managed to do so in spades. Director Gordon Greenberg never hits a wrong note with either his staging or vision of the production, and the result is uniformly excellent, occasionally brilliant, from start to finish. Quite apart from what I've already said about the atmosphere set by the set and lighting design (done by Robert Bissinger and Jeff Croiter respectively --and it just doesn't get better than this in either case), the performance itself is wonderfully dynamic while still thoughtful, funny and deeply moving by turns. Much of the credit for this must go to Brel's work (and Shuman's translation) itself, of course; from the devil's triumphant celebration of (as he sees it) the disaster our planet has become in the opening number "Le Diable (Ca Va)" to a startlingly imaginative portrayal of childhood in a new and frightening world in "My Childhood""to the fears of age and time evidenced in "Old Folks," Brel draws upon our greatest hopes and fears in constructing his sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, but always haunting songs of love and loss. Musical director Eric Svejcar certainly deserves enormous credit for communicating this range of emotion in the band's nuanced instrumental performance.
Where the show really shines is in turning the characters evident in each song into living, breathing entities with existences of their own, and here the cast's strengths are most clearly apparent. There isn't one weak performance from Robert Cuccioli, Natascia Diaz, Rodney Hicks or Gay Marshall, and the ensemble's chemistry is a joy to watch. Cuccioli is so good that under different direction he might overwhelm the rest of the performers, but here the effect is to lift up everyone's performance to his level, with sometimes stunning results. Each performer has his/her own moment of moving and powerful energy within the show, carried out in each case with consummate professionalism and taste. For a musical revue with the form's obvious limitations of plot and character, you won't find stronger senses of identity and personal agency than those expressed in these four performers.
One could find a moment here and there which doesn't quite live up to the excellence of the rest of the show. Good as Marshall is, her pitch falters on several occasions, and Hicks brings a kind of contemporary swagger to his role which doesn't always ring true. But this is really nit-picking in the light of the production's quality generally. I don't know how a musical of this kind will play in our first-impression driven, absolutely practical society with little interest in emotional resonance and deep suspicion of apparent sentimentality. But to dismiss Brel's work as overwrought is both misguided and dangerous, and to dismiss Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living in Paris would be similarly wrongheaded. If Brel's vision, sprung upon us through a haze of shattered visions, cigarette smoke and half-empty bottles of wine isn't popular today, more shame upon us for ignoring the honesty and humanity of a true poet. Take the time to see this show; you'll be the better for having spent just a few h
ours in Bohemia.
Editor's Note: There have been several other revivals of Brel's music -- another ensemble version in DC, and a more biographical solo show in Los Angeles.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well. . .DC
Adieu, Jacques -- LA
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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