Key City Public Theatre has converted their intimate performance space into a European cabaret environment for their production of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”. That's the perfect ambiance for this long-lived review built entirely on the sophisticated, articulate and worldly songs of the pioneering French composer and lyricist. Directed by Denise Winter and with Musical Direction by David H. Schroeder, the accomplished ensemble of four, two men and two women, explore the complicated and often subtle storytelling of Brel's lyric-driven songs.
With virtually no dialogue outside the text of the lyrics, the show challenges the performers to create character, incident and dramatic development entirely within the songs themselves. Brel was most important for the sophistication and insight he brought to the lyrics, never opting for catchy, hook-laden songs when he could write eloquent, expository narrative. Later writers like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen would find, in his example, the freedom to follow the language, to tell the story in words while enabling the music to support and accent the emotion.
While all four performers in this production are talented singers, their dramatic skills vary. Each has particular songs where they are entirely successful, but not all are fully successful in every song. Jeff Allen Pierce was the most consistent, bringing effusive theatricality and a joy in performance to every number. In “Alone” he balances the character's knowing tension with pure showmanship, while in “Jackie” he makes the funny, self-celebratory character feel like someone he knows very, very well. In the bitter, protest oriented “Next” we feel the anti-military sentiment that made the show so popular in the late 60's and still feels quite topical today.
Cynthia Boelling used her lovely, rather delicate voice to great effect in the bittersweet “I Loved” and found a surprising gravity and focus for “My Death”. Janna Maritbrought just the right tone to the cynicism of “Sons Of” to make it both biting and sympathetic. Finally, John Boelling had a very agreeable energy that he used to great effect in songs like “Bachelor's Dance” and especially in the worldly “Amsterdam” the first-act finale.
As I said, all of these performers are talented and experienced, and the evening moves along at a brisk enough pace and with enough variety that we don't really tire of the show's repetitive sequence of song after song. My problem with the performance is in the rather subtle distinction of performances where the songs felt like they were being pulled by the singers, rather than being pushed from inside the characters. Especially with Brel's material, I think we have to sense the urgency and immediacy of the expression, have to always feel that these things must be said right now.
The physical production was fine, with the modest set design by Terry Tennesen effectively creating the cabaret environment. I think the costumes by Beverly Michaelsencould have more evidently placed us in the era of the 1960's, and that would have made it feel more like a period piece and, perhaps, less dated. That was a problem I had with the show itself. Originally staged in New York in 1968, the show is now 44 years old, and the songs are obviously the product of experiences well before that. There is a clear sense that this writer's sensibility is focused on the first half of the Twentieth Century and much that was ground-breaking then has now been subsumed into contemporary writing. That's fine, but inserting references to Baghdad into an anti-military song only makes the age of the material more apparent, not less.
“Jacques Brel...” is a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment delivered by an accomplished and invested cast, and a most pleasant way to spend a summer evening. Key City Public Theatre always sets a high standard and this production admirably meets that expectation. Especially for an older audience, this production is satisfying, somewhat nostalgic and smartly accomplished.
PICTURED ABOVE: Jana Marit, John Boelling, Jeff Allen Pierce and Cynthia Boelling in
"Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris".
PHOTO BY: David Schroeder