'BREL' LIVES ON IN SONG
Delgado revue a bittersweet affair
Friday, November 17, 2006
By David CuthbertTheater writer
Alas, contrary to the title, singer-songwriter-actor Jacques Brel is no longer "Alive and Well and Living in Paris," having died in 1978. But he was very much alive a decade earlier, when a revue of his songs, with English lyrics by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, opened at the Village Gate in New York, ran four years and spawned an album whose yearning love songs facilitated many a make-out session.
Brel was a troubador who reinvented himself in the Charles Aznavour tradition of short story chanson. His primary subject was bittersweet love: love lost, or remembered à la distance. Death was a favorite subject, too, as was a threnody of anti-war sentiment endemic to that era's youth. Brel could also be quite funny. He was as whimsical as he was passionate, sometimes within the same song, with a whiff of the French music hall and carnival. He spoke with a distinctive musical voice from a variety of viewpoints.
"Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" is again playing off-Broadway and now locally at Delgado Community College, where one takes the bitter with the sweet in an enjoyably staged, uneven production directed by Timothy K. Baker, who has divvied up 22 musical numbers among nine, mostly young singers.
The strongest contributions come from the performers who connect meaningfully with the material. Bryan Wagar, the best voice onstage, embodies Brel's passion with powerfully sung renditions of "Jackie," who samples low-life while longing for his younger, innocent self and a young man who finds himself always "Next" in line, for love and death. "Fanette" has him singing of unrequited love and he has energetic fun with "Bachelor's Dance."
Wagar is also paired amusingly with Brian Rosenthal several times, most notably on "The Middle Class," while Rosenthal gives a first-class account of "The Funeral Tango," as a grouchy corpse denouncing his mourners.
Tracey Collins, one of our finest singing actresses, gets serious with the stirring "Sons Of," in which she displays a compellingly dramatic Edith Piaf quality. When it comes to tone and phrasing, Jen Allison shows what Brel is all about in "Old Folks," while Cristin Bradford gets the next-to-closing showpiece, the relentlessly lilting and accelerating "Carousel," although I prefer another translation, "Days of the Waltz," which is closer to Brel's original lyric. (Brel purists aren't crazy about the Blau-Shuman lyrics, some of which are more rewrites than translations.)
"If We Only Have Love," the finale, is very flower child '60s:
"If we only have love,
We can melt all the guns
And give a new world
To our daughters and sons."
The main problem is that Brel's sense of irony, loss, anger and endurance are mature emotions. You have to have some mileage on you to project this kind of material with any authority. Indeed, the show's most famous song, "Marieke," is not here because Baker says he didn't have anyone who could do it (although I would like to have heard Collins give it a try). It also doesn't help when solos slip off-key or a cast member appears to regard the show as a big goof.
The three-piece band is far upstage, on an elevated platform and sounds great, as does the mix of voices and music. Karl Harrod, on keyboards, provided the musical direction (and some beautiful harmonies), with Brendan T. Carmichael on guitar and Marc Dobriner on bass. (An accordion or concertina would have provided additional Gallic flavor.)
Tom Dawson's museum setting is an offbeat, classy concept, with four false, half-circle cranberry-colored prosceniums, gilded picture frames flying in and out, a marble floor treatment and faux statues by Kelly Hammett.
Brel's songs are still alive at Delgado, and all's well when they're well-sung.