Review: JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL & LIVING IN PARIS at ACT

JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL & LIVING IN PARIS
Music by Jacques Brel
Production Conception, English Lyrics and Additional Material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
Through May 17 2015
A Co-Production of ACT — A Contemporary Theatre  and The 5th Avenue Theatre
at ACT
700 Union Street
Seattle WA 98101-4037
http://www.5thavenue.org / http://www.acttheatre.org

The common wisdom about BREL (so shortened to suit my laziness – the artist himself will be named in mixed-case as “Brel”) is that it is a revue, a show without a story.

The common wisdom ain’t so wise.

Director David Armstrong understands that the key to BREL — and to Brel — is that this is not a show without a story, but rather, a show with over two dozen stories. Brel’s work here is like a finely crafted volume of short stories, with sharply drawn characters and vignettes not surrounding the songs as in a book musical, but within each of them. And, in support of that idea, he has cast a troupe of five performers (well, six, actually — with one mid-run swap) who are terrific singers, but even more, wonderful actors who know they are creating characters and telling stories in song.

Brel, a Belgian singer-songwriter whose career spanned almost precisely the middle half of the 20th century, had terrific impact by himself on the tradition of the chanson and on European cabaret. But even more, many of his songs became more familiar to us when performed, especially in English translation, by a long roster of performers including (taking a deep breath here) Karen Akers, Marc Almond, Joan Baez, Theodore Bikel, David Bowie, Glen Campbell, Belinda Carlisle, Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Marlene Dietrich, Céline Dion, Sheena Easton, Marianne Faithfull… and that just takes us through the F’s – for a more complete list, check the Wikipedia article. He was cited as a significant influence by many writers including  Bowie, Alex Harvey, Leonard Cohen, Almond and Rod McKuen — the last having written some of the most frequently performed, but sometimes a bit too free-wheeling, English translations of his work.

Brel’s work is rich in story but also in character, in sentiment but also in irony and sarcasm. (In fact, some interpretations by other translators who are tone-deaf to the searing sarcasm of Brel’s lyrics miss the mark by being sincere to the point of being maudlin — it’s hard to believe that the much-derided “Seasons in the Sun” could have come from Brel’s “Le Moribond” until you see that the original lyrics mock the missed lover and friend for the affair with which they betrayed the dying singer.) And Armstrong and the cast evoke that edge — in Cayman Ilika’s initially shy, but ultimately anything but shy, turn in “Timid Frieda” to Timothy McCuen Piggee’s review of his own mourners from his bier in “Funeral Tango” to Eric Ankrim’s and the other male singer’s (Louis Hobson in the first half of the run, followed by Matt Owen) turn on “Girls and Dogs,” to name three examples.

When you have songs that are themselves rich miniature plays or monologues, you need more than fine singers – you need terrific actors who are fine singers. Such is the BREL cast — performers who are at home on the musical as well as non-musical stage, with a range of unique voices. The manic, almost explosive energy of Eric Ankrim serves as a perfect bookend in the second half of the run to the sensitive but joyous edge of Matt Owen. While Louis Hobson is a fine singer and actor, Owen found both harder edges and broader humor in the songs – while Hobson’s “Fanette” was mostly wistful, Owen found an underlying bitterness to it. Piggee brings to his songs the extravagance and depth of character he brought to his performance as Belize in Intiman’s ANGELS IN AMERICA last summer, but does so with several characters in three-minute chunks, from the corpse in “Funeral Tango” to  the sailor in “Amsterdam.” 

The contrast is the strongest between the equally wonderful female voices – Ilika’s sweetness, sadness, and rage illuminate every song she is in, and unique style and sound of Kendra Kassebaum makes “I Loved” and “My Death” wondrous, but nowhere near as much so as one of Brel’s most familiar tunes, Ne Me Quitte Pas.” (You may be familiar with Rod McKuen’s oft-recorded version, “If You Go Away”; to me, that translation buries much of the genuine desperation in treacle, so the choice to make it the only song that is sung in the original and perfectly-accented French was a great one.)

The convergence of direction, performance, and stagecraft enhance the production in many ways – from the minimalist platform-and-elevator set, to the sparing but on-the-mark use of projections, to great costuming choices that add to the narrative and thematic richness — from “Timid Frieda’s” on-stage change, to the sport-on-sport costumes in “The Bulls” that combine football, bullfighting and, ultimately, combat into one crowd-fueled jingoistic binge, to the UN-costuming that strips the emotion of “Next” bare. This is a production that is full of great choices.

Staging twenty-six Brel songs end-to-end runs the risk of suggesting repetition, and there are places that the similarities between songs are strong — especially between the full-company opener, “Marathon,” and the penultimate “Carousel.” But that sense is overcome by the strength of the numbers and the performances. The show ends with the full company performing what is probably Brel’s most-sung piece, and the most anthemic and non-narrative, “If We Only Have Love”; after the dark and bitter and biting journeys we take earlier in the show, it is uplifting and cathartic, a beautiful way to leave the theatre.

BREL is a show I’ve hoped to see for more than half my life. I am not disappointed.

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