September 27, 2012 at 9:58 am EST | by Patrick Folliard
‘Alive and Well’

‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris’
Through Oct. 21
1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria
$45-$50 (student and military discounts)

Jacques Brel, Arena Stage

The cast of ‘Jacques Brel,’ a well-staged French revue. (Photo courtesy MetroStage)

Belgian-born singer songwriter Jacques Brel might have joined the family cardboard manufacturing business and lived a life of quiet desperation. Happily, he didn’t. Brel instead escaped to postwar Paris and became the musical voice of his generation, turning out popular French songs about war, death, love, bulls and carousels.

In “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” the best of Brel’s vast songbook is featured in two cabaret-like acts; and lucky for us locals, a topnotch production of the musical is now up and running at MetroStage (Carolyn Griffin’s intimate and estimable playhouse on the edge of Old Town Alexandria) through mid-October.

Translated from the original French by American poet Eric Blau and songwriter Mort Shuman, “Jacques Brel” premiered off-Broadway in 1968. Subsequent successful revivals have run in New York over the years including a 2006 revised production (which MetroStage is presenting).

The show opens with “Le Diable/Ca Va,” a zippy tune noting that the devil rules supreme on earth. And while Brel might believe modern existence is essentially crap, other songs prove he does find some things to savor in life like wit, wistful memories and the exquisite pain of lost love and missed opportunity.

A lot of the music is nostalgic and sounds French (accordion and all), but overall there’s variation ranging from the catchy, bourgeois-denigrating drinking song titled “The Middle Class” to “Next” (a young vet’s sardonic recollection of his experience with camp followers) to Brel’s familiar “Amsterdam,” an earthy ode to the lowly seaman, powerfully sung by Bobby Smith who brilliantly embodies the world-weary boulevardier.

Each of the show’s almost 30 songs is a self-contained story with its own beginning, middle and end all drawn from past romances, reckless youth, disappointment and hard living. Lighting designer Jessica Winfield evocatively sets the mood for each melodic tale and all four cast members are superb storytellers with terrific diction and phrasing to boot. In addition to the aforementioned Smith, the terrific cast includes Natascia Diaz, Bayla Whitten and a shaggy-haired Sam Ludwig.

Diaz performed in the off-Broadway 2006 production and it shows. She gives life to the spirit of Brel’s Paris, capturing the sadness, wit and irony in equal measure. Her heartrending interpretation of “My Death” is not soon forgotten. She’s just as effective singing Brel’s gorgeous Piaf-esque ballad “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”) as the quietly potent “Old Folks,” a sort of lullaby about the inevitability of old age and death. Hers is a stunning performance.

The younger cast members Ludwig and Whitten (a lovely soprano) are excellent too. He beautifully inhabits the angry-but-girl crazy young man while she is at turns both naïve and jaded.

This “Jacques Brel” brings together Studio Theatre’s producing artistic director Serge Seiden with Signature Theatre’s associate artistic producer Matthew Gardiner (both gay).  Seiden’s staging is beyond solid. The production moves briskly and seamlessly without ever feeling rushed or forced. Gardiner’s cheery choreography is reserved mostly for the more lighthearted numbers. It’s fun, but more importantly, his dance sequences allow the players to interact in ways that might otherwise appear awkward.

Except for a pole with lights evocative of a street lamp and two simple café chairs that disappear when not needed, the shadowy stage is completely bare. Off to the side, the band (ably led by musical director Jenny Cartney on piano) is visible throughout the show. It could be the late night Parisian club scene where Brel got his start. For the first act, Janine Sunday smartly costumes the cast in vaguely late-‘60s gear, nicely conveying an era of protest and change. Puzzlingly, the second act — sartorially speaking — is more a hodgepodge of castoffs.

Contrary to the title, Brel is neither well nor alive. He died of lung cancer in 1978, but the music endures. Today his songs resonate as strongly as ever. For the uninitiated (which included myself prior to a recent matinee), MetroStage’s stylish effort serves as a marvelous introduction to Brel’s work. It’s also first rate entertainment.


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