As area performing arts companies crank into high gear for a frantic September of opening nights, Alexandria’s MetroStage seems to have gotten the jump on nearly everyone. Their fantastic, energetic revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is already up and running. And take it from us—it’s the fall season’s first must-see musical theater event.
Like The Fantasticks, Jacques Brel is one of those shows that seems to have been around practically forever. Unlike The Fantasticks, however, Brel is not a musical play. Instead, it’s a substantial, multi-dimensional cabaret-style revue loaded with vintage songs and lyrics that somehow seems contemporary and new.
Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer-songwriter-actor-director who, in his short lifetime – he died at 49 – became a major influence on the folk and pop music scene, circa 1950 through the 1970s. An indifferent student, he ended up working in his father’s cardboard box factory.
Slowly developing his chosen craft on the side, he built a following for his music, an odd but interesting amalgam that deftly blended elements of the French ballad style and early pop with touches of the classical art song and cabaret sensibilities. Penned originally in French, his always clever and often profound lyrics added real intelligence to the genre, arguably preceding the groundbreaking work of Stephen Sondheim in his highly intellectual Broadway shows.
Eventually moving to Paris, Brel and his work began to influence major international artists, some of whom adapted or recorded English language versions of Brel’s songs, ranging from more established songsters like Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams to hip new artists like David Bowie, Ray Charles, and Judy Collins.
Brel’s significant popularity in the 1960s brought his music to the attention of the American poet Rod McKuen as well as New York-based songsmith Mort Shuman, both of whom worked on translating and adapting Brel’s work for American audiences. Shuman later teamed with Eric Blau to create a musical revue devoted to Brel’s music, eventually resulting in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Opening off-Broadway in 1968, the show ran for an astounding four years plus.
That original production consisted of an overture and twenty-five of Brel’s songs sung in solo or ensemble by two male and two female performers. Successive revivals have tinkered a bit with the original show, adding or subtracting a few songs here and there.
MetroStage’s production closely mirrors the 2006 off-Broadway revival’s mix of songs while eliminating the 1968 overture music and occasionally swapping the order of 2006’s slightly larger roster of songs.
The staging is deceptively simple: a small accompanying ensemble of musicians is seated unobtrusively to the back of the performance space, leaving the rest of the stage open for four performers and four simple, wooden chairs. That’s all there is.
Yet within this space, the performers and musicians reach back and channel Jacques Brel’s Parisian world of the 1950s and 1960s right into the hearts and guts of MetroStage’s 2012 audience. It’s a stunning achievement, really, that doesn’t hit you until you’re well into the performance.
Much of this is due to the uncanny excellence of Natascia Diaz. As one of the performers in the 2006 New York revival of Jacques Brel, Diaz was already experienced with the material in the show before becoming part of this production and we’re all the beneficiaries. Her head is so deeply into the Brel experience that even in English translation, she expresses the very essence of Jacques Brel’s Paris in mood, delivery, attitude, morality, and emotion. Brel’s tunes and lyrics can be playful. But more often they’re loaded with sorrow, poignancy, bitterness, and regret.
Diaz deeply understands it all from simple joy to overwhelming misery. While she’s adapt at expressing any mood or nuance, her interpretative skills are at their most powerful, perhaps, in a song like “Ne me quitte pas” (“Don’t leave me”), a tragic ballad inspired by a romantic break-up. Sung in French, her heartbreaking performance really needs no translation.
It’s an emotional high point of the show. And yet, its passion is surprisingly rivaled only a few songs later when Diaz returns to sing “Old Folks” in English, a song that, in exquisite, almost minute detail, offers incredibly sensitive insights into the end-of-life emotions of a couple entering what they know to be their twilight years. Only a cold heart, indeed, could fail to shed a few tears at the conclusion of Diaz’ wrenching yet understated interpretation.
What’s perhaps most remarkable and notable in Diaz’ performance, and indeed, in the performances of her fellow cast members, is the exquisite detail devoted to the phrasing and diction of each individual song. Most of Brel’s songs are easily enjoyable and often riveting as tunes. But Brel’s lyrics, while deceptively simple, are deeply complex, cutting at times right into the bone without advance warning. Happily, this cast gets everything right each and every time.
Yet all this effort would have gone for naught were the audience forced to strain to hear the actual words—so often the case in area productions where diction is poor, or where the orchestra, sound system, or sound mix buries the singers at a crucial lyrical turn.
A few such mishaps did occur early on during the performance we attended, but they were minor and seem to have been minimized as the production unfolded. But ninety-six percent of the time, amplification was handled with the lightest of touches, allowing the full power of the music and the lyrics to whisk the audience away.
With regard to individual performances, we’ve already spoken highly of Natascia Diaz who, if there is any justice in the world, should be a top contender in one category or another for this season’s Helen Hayes Awards.
Bobby Smith could very well be another Helen Hayes contender. Interpreting several songs that could only be related by a man of some experience, Smith brilliantly delivered some of Brel’s most tough-minded numbers, including “Jackie” (once actually banned on the BBC for its rough, street-smart lyrics) and “Amsterdam,” a gruff, realistic song accurately describing the seamy side of life in this otherwise famously picturesque Dutch city.
This production’s two younger cast members handled their songs/roles with aplomb as well. Sam Ludwig, veered effectively between lovestruck youth in a song like “If We Only Have Love,” to cosmic anger and bitterness in “Statue,” singing as the inhabiting spirit of a war memorial statue whose inspiring figure never intended to die for God and country.
Bayla Whitten added a sweet, often innocent soprano voice to the ensemble cast, alternating, like Ludwig, between lighter and darker songs such as in the romantic “I Loved,” as opposed by “Sons of” which she sang as part of a jagged set against Bobby Smith’s biting “Amsterdam.”
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and living in Paris
Closes Oct 21, 2012
1201 North Royal Street
While most of the evening’s songs were solos, ensemble moments were musically enlightening as well, particularly jaunty, funny numbers like “Madeleine,” and “Timid Freida,” but also “Le Moribond,” familiar to American and Canadian audiences in its treacly English translation entitled “Seasons in the Sun.” As in any good revue, these somewhat lighter, more lyrical numbers helped freshen the show’s often hard-hitting atmosphere, unveiling a singer-songwriter who could still enjoy a few jokes among life’s hard knocks.
Under the direction of pianist and occasional accordionist, musical director Jenny Cartney, MetroStage’s four-piece ensemble—David Cole (guitar), Greg Holloway (percussion), and Yusef Chisolm (bass)—functioned in many ways as the vital heart of this show. Their sound was tight and professional but never obtrusive, providing the perfect rhythmic and musical backdrop for the show’s phenomenal vocalist.
Finally, a big hat tip to Serge Seiden who directed this first-rate production. Working from a firm concept of what this show should be, he kept the show’s fluidity and motion in mind while allowing each of his performers the freedom to express the lives and emotions of the characters inhabiting each of Brel’s songs. In so doing, he and his cast carefully shape Brel’s songs into elaborate yet compact short stories in music, all of which, collectively, conjure up the complex and passionate life and times of a post WWII Paris whose life and times are now nearly forgotten.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, created by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman and based on the music of Jacques Brel. Directed by Serge Seiden. featuring Natascia Diaz, Sam Ludwig, Bobby Smith, Bayla Whitten. Music Director: Jenny Cartney, Choreography: Matthew Gardiner, Set Design: Daniel Pinha, Costume Design: Janine Sunday, Sound Design: Jake Null, Reviewed by Terry Ponick.
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Allie J. Lundquist . MDTheatreGuide
Laura Fries . AlexandriaNews
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Ian Buckwalter . City Paper
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Julia L. Exline . DCMetroTheaterArts
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly