Sometime in the not too distant past, an ornate street lamp, that you could easily imagine encircled by fog, glows at a dingy train depot early morning. Byron Jones, looking dapper in a suit and hat, enters and tenderly launches into “La Ville S’endormait” [The City Was Falling Asleep] surrounded by haphazardly strewn travel trunks and threadbare windows. Soon, a conductor joins him and two other travelers, each carrying their own case on the way to “Bruxelles” [Brussels]. It’s a lovely start to a night of thoughtful, sometimes funny, and often heartfelt songs.
The In Series’ focus on legendary Belgian lyricist and composer Jacques Brel is moving and powerful. Songs from His World runs through 22 of his best songs, as sung by the emotive voices of Byron Jones, Fleta Hylton, Simon Charette, and Brian J. Shaw. Naturally, love—of a woman, or man or of country—is a prominent theme, but so is war, both its heaviness and lightness, such as visiting a brothel and recognizing that you are like a cog on an assembly line that ends up with the clap.
I wasn’t familiar with Brel, so learning through listening that he wrote lyrically driven “chansons” that resembled poems, was lovely. Also, realizing that he was often witty, funny, and full of wry observation, such as on “Au Suivant”, made this cabaret a true joy for me. And it never occurred to me (mostly because I’d had a busy week with this show far from my mind) that everything would be sung in French (there is a bit of Dutch and English thrown in). While it was a nice refresher for my latent language skills, I was pleasantly surprised that no French is needed (and not because subtitles are provided).
Just as you don’t need lyrics in classical music to feel chills or understand the passion driving a score, you don’t need to speak the language of love to feel love. This is where Jones, Hylton, Charette, and Shaw shine. The three men are excellent together on “Amsterdam,” conveying a deep sense of melancholy—such is the sailor’s life—as they crescendo together in the song’s finale. Charette and Shaw, paired on multiple occasions, also bring an almost vaudeville sense of fun to their numbers, such as “Les Bourgeois” where they liken the middle class to pigs and reminiscence about drinking away their youth, which included mooning.
But, it is Hylton who steals the show. As the sole woman, she makes all the difference. She quite literally elevated every piece in which she is featured with her astounding soprano. She is also, perhaps, the most expressive performer, presenting a rather haughty figure on “La Dame Patronesse” [Lady Bountiful]. Her character, a shy waitress, is just as delightful on “Au Printemps” [In Spring].
Jacques Brel—Songs From His World
closes November 19, 2017
Details and tickets
And then there is Jones, whose smooth voice wraps around you like a pool of warm, melted butter. It’s easy to get lost in it alone, such as on “La Fanette”, but when he and Hylton merge, there is magic. Their “La Chanson des Vieux L’amants” [The Song of Old Lovers] may make you wilt. Not too worry. They will help you rebound on “Le Prochain Amour” [The Next Love].
For all you old fans, this revue will offer you something new, as many songs are not featured in the well-known and popular Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. For all you not-yet fans who may wonder what Mr. Brel has to offer, consider this: he’s been covered by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, John Denver, and the great David Bowie.
Crisp, clean, and full of heart, Jacques Brel—Songs from His World is a dazzling display of voice and an excellent homage to la premiere chanteur, monsieur Brel.
Jacques Brel—Songs From His World . Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Music Director and Pianist Reenie Codelka. Featuring Byron Jones, Fleta Hylton, Simon Charette, and Brian J. Shaw. Production: Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Set and Projections Design; Marianna Meadows, Lighting Design; and Clare Parker, Costume Design. Stage Managed by Cindy King. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.