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Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

While ostensibly a resuscitation of the 1968 smash revue that ran over four years at the Village Gate, the dehumanizing new revival of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Zipper Theatre isn't so much alive as it is dead on arrival.

Director Gordon Greenberg has attempted to sever the show's concert/cabaret roots by giving each of Brel's songs a theatrical context. The four performers (Robert Cuccioli, Natascia Diaz, Rodney Hicks, and Gay Marshall) gallop through some two dozen ghoulish waltzes and chansons, playing with suitcases, furniture, and army helmets designed to particularize for modern audiences some strange songs that long ago fell out of popular favor.

But neither the pointlessly busy staging nor the cast members' plastic smiles and glazed-over eyes have anything to do with Brel's songs. The Belgian composer (1929-1978) was renowned and admired for his head-scratching individuality, for his playing with ideas of love, life, and death (often indistinguishable from one another) against the stark background of his time's counterculture zeitgeist. He was raw and unpredictable, and wrote songs that were raw and unpredictable, but that simply needed to be sung to be understood.

Unfortunately, there's nothing simple about Greenberg's direction or Mark Dendy's irresponsible choreography, both of which reduce Brel's quirky numbers to the soundtrack of a freak show. Neither trusts the songs' abilities to speak for themselves, and so instead of becoming relevant to a new generation of listeners, they're rendered wholly incomprehensible, despite being sung for the most part in English (the translations are by the show's original conceivers, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman).

For example, I have no idea why "Jackie," a song whose lyric details an imaginary faded glory, is about Cuccioli scooting around the stage on a wheeled armchair. Nor can I explain why "Madeleine," which seems to be about a stood-up young man (Hicks) not considered good enough for his beloved, is an exploration of the combinations of people that can fit on and around a chaise longue (also on wheels). Equally mystifying is the new homoerotic subtext infusing the mock-mocking "The Middle Class," sung by Cuccioli, Hicks, and music director Eric Svejcar (also providing accordion accompaniment) as an impenetrable paean to male bonding.

Svejcar, though, is a joyous presence, whether pounding at the piano keyboard, strumming guitar strings, or especially when lifting his more-than-serviceable voice in song. He connects with his numbers with more visceral masculinity than do the broodingly effete Cuccioli or Hicks; granted, that's saying little, but Svejcar feels closer to Brel in style than do his Summer Stock-reject brethren. As for Diaz, she's utterly hopeless throughout, duller than dishwater and twice as soapy while trying to evoke "wistful," "longing," or the even more elusive "awake."

Only Marshall provides a real respite from the production's suffocating falseness, so enlivening during her moments in the spotlight that you momentarily feel you're not watching an apocalyptic Gong Show after all. In songs like "Sons Of" and "Carousel," which celebrate the oddly roundabout nature of life, she attains a powerful, forward emotional mobility, despite singing words that are the lyrical equivalents of a circle.

Her focus is so internal and so intense that it's unsurprising to learn from her Playbill bio that she starred in her own one-woman show about legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf. If Marshall only occasionally evokes her directly, her ability to parse a lyric down to its core and play and sing that truth is immensely welcome among a cast and creative team who can only have stumbled through Song Interpretation 101 with their eyes and ears covered.

The only number in which Marshall's castmates match her ability is in the finale, one of Brel's best-known songs, "If We Only Have Love." That one succeeds primarily because Greenberg and Dendy go against their usual staging predilections and have the cast just stand and sing. Only then, however briefly, does Jacques Brel truly seem alive and well on a large scale. The rest of the time, you can all but hear him spinning in his grave.


Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 10 minute intermission
Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge