Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
When Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris debuted in New York at the Village Gate in 1968, it was a groundbreaker—a musical revue with something new, something bold, and particularly something evocative to say about life, about relationships, about loneliness, about the hypocrisy of religion, about death and, especially, about the soul-sucking properties of a global society continuously at war, a world where those in power forever need to be fighting somebody, no matter who the latest enemy is or how many toys our leaders must grab in order to give themselves a collective hard-on of supremacy over those less fortunate.
When I first saw the show in 1970, attending the long-running hit with a group from the cast of Hair on a night off, I remember thinking how completely Brel’s brilliantly expressive but sharply pointed lyrics trumped everything we had been trying to say about the obscenity of the then-current war—and without anyone in its cast losing their clothes, wrapping themselves in a flag, or needing to burn one single faux draft card to get the point across.
Now four decades later, Hair is back on Broadway with a vengeance but, although Jacques Brel Is… is still often revived, oddly it is the one of the two that usually feels dated and passé. Somehow, however, despite the fact that the average age of your typical audience member at the Colony Theatre in Burbank is 347 years old, under the magical spell of director Jon Lawrence Rivera and populated by four truly dynamic El Lay musical theatre craftsmen (crafts…persons?), everything old here is—almost—new again.
Jennifer Shelton is in fine voice as the show’s resident ingénue, getting a chance to subtly display her humor in “I Loved” and stopping the show with her solo “My Death.” The amazing Eileen Barnett is exceptional throughout as Brel’s older-but-wiser female contributor in every one of her lingeringly emotional ballads, but especially fine in a mesmerizingly simple but heartrending rendition of “Sons Of” and in the production’s most familiar song, “Ne Me Quiite Pas.” Happily, the latter is sung entirely in its original French rather than translated as usual into the more popular English version, “If You Go Away”—and frankly, no one will ever be able to perform it better in our native tongue than my dear late-great friend Dusty Springfield.
The smooth-toned and suavely capable Gregory Franklin, like Barnett one of our town’s most outstanding musical theatre artists, is the perfect match as her more “mature” counterpart, most notably in a terrific version of “Fanette” with the show’s younger male, Zachary Ford, skillfully accompanying him on, of all things French, the accordion. Ford, with his equally infectious personality and stunning Les Miz baritone, also stands out in several numbers, including as the pissed-off “Statue” getting shit on by the birds in a park, and joining Franklin in Monsieur Brel’s rousing and raucously drunken send-up of “The Middle Class.”
John H. Binkley’s uncomplicated but provocative set design is an asset complimented by Adam Blumenthal’s creamy lighting, Cricket S. Myer’s sound, and musical director Brent Crayon at the piano leading the five-piece band with consummate skill. In general and without question, this is a fresh and memorable return for a true classic in American theatre history.
Still, the exceptionally able and majorly prolific Jon Rivera has chosen to stage the piece at a funeral—presumably rites for Brel himself, who died in 1978 at age 49, giving many of his songs an extra touch of poignancy—and has done so with a precision plan in place to give this updated version a dose of 21st-century relevancy by adding some striking choreographed visual slight-of-hand. His concept works perfectly for the show’s aforementioned haunting ballads, but in the more balls-out numbers such as “Jackie,” “Madeleine,” and the usually jarringly frightening “Next,” this consciously heightened sense of dramatization, such as leaping from chair to chair or handing flowers to one another, tends occasionally to distract from the intensity of material itself.
This all might have worked better if it were not for the usually spot-on musical direction of Crayon, who tends to slow down the score in places where the show’s purposely strident inner monologues need to be performed as more decidedly in-your-face. Still, this is a minor quibble over a splendidly successful production, bringing the wonder of this amazing composer and poet back for us all to appreciate again while showcasing a quartet of knockout local musical performers.
especially when I begin this review with a crack about the average age of Colony Theatre patrons, to learn at the opening night party . Why, Brel’s classic song “Old Folks” had a disturbing whole new meaning for a lotta people gathered in Burbank that night, myself certainly included.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris plays through May 9 at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank; for tickets, call 818.558.7000. For more information, visit www.colonytheatre.org