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A CurtainUp DC Review
By Rich See
Everyman Theatre closes out its 2003-2004 season with its first musical, a powerful and poignant cabaret-style show sharing the music of late Belgian/French chansonnier and hero Jacques Brel. Based upon Brel's music and commentary, the show first appeared Off-Broadway in New York in 1968 and was an instant hit, running for 1,847 performances. For those who are not familiar with Jacques Brel, he was born in 1929 and became during the 1950s and 1960s the "Voice of Paris." Having written over 300 songs in his lifetime, his music has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, and a host of famous American singers and crooners. Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was conceptualized by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman who scoured Brel's songbook and, with Brel's assistance, translated his lyrics, bringing his music to an enthusiastic American audience. Conceived as a libretto-less musical, the production features 27 of Brel's touching and illuminating songs, which tend to center on love, death, loneliness, aging, despair, and joy while commenting on society, politics, and the human existence.
Everyman Theatre's production, which is directed by Donald Hicken, does Mr. Brel a tribute that is both fun and heartfelt. With songs alternating between the tender and the jovial, one minute making you ruminate on life, the next tapping your toe to the bouncing beat. More than just a simple cabaret, the entire piece never gets bogged down, as each song is designed to be a mini-play with the actors/singers taking on roles and sharing the stories of the songs in action and demeanor. Musical Director James R. Fitzpatrick has developed a finely hewn musical where the music and singing on many of the songs stop on a dime in a most impressive way. The cabaret-style seating and the set by Wally Coberg bring the atmosphere of an intimate jazz nightclub to life. (Food and drinks are permitted at the general-seating tables, so audience members are encouraged to arrive early and enjoy the experience.) Lighting designer Jay A. Herzog showers the stage in blues and reds with occasional greens that are reminiscent of the 1960's era. And Debra K. Sivigny's costumes add to the time period of the piece.
The cast includes Christopher Bloch, Amanda Johnson, Dan Manning, and Sally Martin. Mr. Bloch shines in "Alone," "Le Gaz" (a humorous number about a gas man's lust for one of his clients), and "The Bulls." Miss Johnson is superb in the touching "Old Folks," a song that shares the slow march of time, and "Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don't Leave Me)" about a woman pleading with her lover. Mr. Manning is exceptional in "Jackie," a song Brel wrote to celebrate youth with lyrics that sing "If I could be, for only one little hour, cute, cute, cute...in a stupid ass way." He also does wonderful work with the humorous ode to love "Mathilde," the tragic war story of "Next," and joins Mr. Bloch on the funny send up "Middle Class." Miss Martin is superb in some of the shows most touching numbers, including "I Loved," the anti-war "Sons of" -- "...sons of the great or sons of the unknown, all were children like your own." She also joins Miss Johnson, singing the French lyrics on "La Chanson des Vieux Amants (Song of Old Lovers)" and sings the Dutch version of "Marieke," while also bringing hope to an unseen partner in the powerful "No Love Your Not Alone."
All in all, this is a charming way to be introduced to Jacques Brel. And if you already have met him, a wonderful way to be reunited with his work.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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