If you are unaware of who Jacques Brel is you are not alone. You may have heard the name, likely associated with the 1968 musical revue, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, but chances are you haven't seen it and you may have assumed that the show is the story, the explanation of who Jacques Brel is. Your assumption would be both right and wrong. Jacques Brel, the man and the production, was, is a complex, sharp-edged and intense human story set to music. The show, in all of its curiosity, is currently being presented by the Two River Theater Company and is worth the investigation.
For the record, Jacques Brel, the songwriter whose music has been translated and adapted to imagine this show, was a Belgian singer/songwriter who wrote, performed and recorded a prolific canon of songs, mainly in French, from 1954 until 1977. Brel died in 1978 at the age of 49 from lung cancer. His work and performances are known for their intensity and introspection.
Set on a stark worn-wood stage, flanked by the musicians who accompany, Brel's atmosphere is like a wine-soaked, cigarette-smoked French cabaret, the very world where Brel developed his music and character. The songs themselves, 27 in all, (sung by a cast of four, two men, two women), though of a mixed variety, some with bounce and humor, some like anthems and others like ballads, are also stark and worn and loaded with tragic irony.
Indeed, Brel's work is so full of depth and duality, that it is difficult for a listener to predict the intent simply by interpreting the melody, the tone. As famed French singer Edith Piaf remarked of Brel's work...he expresses his reason for living and each line hits you in the face and leaves you dazed. No subject, least of all love, is open to kind and delicate treatment in Brel's work, nor in his life. Brel left his wife and daughters in 1960 and then experienced his most prolific period of writing. Brel was forever wielding the double edged sword. His music, like his life, cut both ways.
It is important to note that Brel's lyrics, the turns of phrase, the world philosophy imparted, the observations noted, give the listener cause for pause. It is easy to get lost or hooked on an idea, a memory, and to puzzle over it as the rest of the song unfolds.
Brel's words are thinking and feeling lyrics and seem to satisfy those who perform them. There is a necessity for the singer of Brel's works to perform the lyrics, to summon the drama in order to sell the song. In this production of Brel, Two River Theater audiences are fortunate to have such emotionally connected performers singing the show. The cast of four, all with Broadway experience and success, includes Rona Figueroa (Miss Saigon), Forrest McClendon (The Scottsboro Boys, from which, presently, he has a 2011 Tony nominee), Andy Kelso (Mamma Mia) and Lindsay Mendsez (Everyday Rapture). The on-stage band includes Greg Brown (conductor and keyboards), David Malachowski (guitar), Joshua Samuels (drums/percussion) and Joseph Wallace (bass).
In the case of this production, it is necessary to offer praise to both groups of performers. The delicate strings that connect them must be both invisible to the ear and yet equally balanced, equally present and powerful...and that they are.
Another important aspect to note is the work of the sound team of Drew Levy and Zachary Williamson. As this is a show of the voice, of the lyric and music, of the sound, it is essential for it to be crystal during both its highs and lows and everything in between. It was a bit of mastery of the entire team to be able to hear all tones so clearly, to appreciate its perfect balance live, as if a studio recording.
Brel was directed by Daniel Ostling, a scenic designer and ensemble member of Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company, he makes his directorial debut with this production. And there is a sense of wonderful continuity between the design and direction because Osltling designed it as well. (Ostling replaced the previously announced director Amanda Dehnart following her resignation for personal reasons). The singular vision of design and direction works well.
Like the production's design, bare and available, Ostling's direction, supports and suggests, allowing the purity of the performances to be the thing. To his credit, it should be mentioned, that Ostling has worked in enough surprises, nuance and irony into this production to grab the audiences attention and to keep it, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, to satisfy the the recurrence of duality, wrought in this work as it was by the pen of the show's namesake.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris runs until June 5, 2011.
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