Friday, Sept 28, 2007
A troubadour's heady take on life is alive and well
by WENDELL BROCK
In the world of Jacques Brel, love is a pas de deux - a dance of desire and loss acted out in
a plush red and gold Parisian cabaret.
And what is death?
Death is a tango of back-snapping intensity, between a dark stranger and his submissive
victim, acted out in a plush red and gold Parisian cabaret.
Both images work their dizzy magic in "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" -
the whirling carousel of a revue that's getting an intensely imagined workout on the Alliance
Theatre's Hertz Stage. As directed by Susan V. Booth, "Jacques Brel" captures the breathy
metaphysical allure that was the essential trademark of the Belgian-born troubadour
(1929-1978) who made his name in the City of Light.
A mid-'60s off-Broadyway hit that has come bobbing back into fashion with the frenetic,
century-surveying pace of its opening number ("Marathon"), this musical is as refreshing
and soul-satisfying as a spritzy late-afternoon aperitif in a musty Left Bank boite.
Playing on that conceit, designers Leslie Taylor (sets) and Pete Shinn (lights) have turned
the subterranean Hertz space into a delightfully warm cabaret, replete with miniature
chandeliers, Chinese lanterns, banquettes, a working bar, a piano strewn with swags and
tassels and one tiny guitar.
Keep your eye on that strategically placed ukelele, and don't be surprised if you hear a few
bonsoirs from the ushers.
Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, who conceived the entertainment and translated the lyrics from
the French, have kept the piece blissfully bookless, so that the songs tell their own stories
without colliding with any forced characters or plot. This lets the directory play with the
order of the numbers, even edit out or add a few, to emphasize certain themes or
showcase the strengths of the cast.
In every choice, Booth and musical directory Michael Fauss demonstrate impeccable taste,
and the quartet of singers is fantastically adept at interpreting Brel's inimitable oeuvre.
Songs about frolic and courtship ("Bachelor's Dance", "Timid Freida"). Songs of
abandonments ("Ne Me Quitte Pas") and romantic longevity ("Songs for Old Lovers").
Songs about lusty sailors and whores ("Amsterdam"). Songs about the silent-film bustle of
Brel's native burg ("Brussels").
Loverly Lauren Kling gets to play most of the ingenue parts. Joseph Dellger is alternately
sinister and salty in a variety of male roles; his lip-smacking turn in "Amsterdam" is a literal
study in the deliciousness of grandstanding. Craig A. Meyer uses his bright-eyed
boyishness to convey both tenderness and strength - you sort of imagine that he's the Mr.
Congeniality of this ensemble.
A ribald comedian, Courtenay Collins also goes to dark, dangerous and exhilarating places.
With the tragic "Ne Me Quitte Pas", the tears are real, and the performance one of the best
of the year.
Arriving at a time when America had been shattered by Vietnam, "Jacques Brel" dabbles in
political commentary and has been updated here to make salient points about America's
place in the world.
But Brel's great romantic spirit, his quirky convulsion of ideas and philosophy, are the core
of this superbly choreographed revue. He was tought; he was sentimental. He was
sensual; he was cerebral. He was an elegant, protean thinker and a low humorist. At once
joyous and funereal, Brel's songs are meditations on the fickle impulse of the modern age.