Jacques Brel is Alive and Well
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris has taken up residence again in Boston. Although beginning to show its age, in capable hands here it still stirs a few memories and packs a few punches.
This Off-Broadway cabaret-style revue was very much a product of its time when Mort Shuman and Eric Blau (who also provided the English adaptations) first created it in 1968. The material is based on the lyrics and commentary of Belgian-born, Paris-based singer/songwriter Jacques Brel. He often collaborated on the music with other composers who are credited on the sheet music and recordings from the show, but not in the program.
Once it was settled in at the Village Gate (where it remained for four and a half years) other companies were spun off in London and the U.S. The Boston company, headed by original cast member Elly Stone, opened in 1970 and was one of the first long runs to become ensconced in The Charles Playhouse when it ceased operating as a regional theatre.
Frank Sugrue, one of the producers of this revival, was the business manager for The Charles Playhouse when it housed a resident company and later owned the building for a period of time. He joins forces here with Jerome Rosenfeld, Joan Fredricks, Tim Montgomery and Rita A. Fucillo to present this new Jacques Brel ... as the inaugural offering at the Stuart Street Playhouse/2nd Stage.
The production is "inspired by" and "based on" director Scott Edmiston's hit of last summer at the Gloucester Stage Company. While he was "unavailable due to prior commitments," original cast members Leigh Barrett, Caroline deLima, Drew Poling and Eric Rubbe are reprising their highly acclaimed performances. A second cast consisting of Kristen Sergeant, Merle Perkins, Geoff Burns and Kent French alternates with the original group and has been well received by reviewers who have covered both.
My interest in seeing the show had more to do with an admiration for the creative people involved in the Gloucester production than any special attraction to the material itself. I somehow managed to avoid the original production all together and missed the film, as well, when it came out in 1975 as part of the second season of the American Film Theatre (released last month on DVD.)
Brel's songs are not unfamiliar, however, and do hold a certain attraction thanks to covers by The Kingston Trio, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Sting and many other artists not on my play list.
My avoidance probably had something to do with it being touted by the creators as the first "librettoless musical." But, despite the addition of some patter and its carefully considered programming and presentation, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris really is a revue, plain and simple, and it feels right at home in an intimate cabaret setting.
The drinks and light bar menu available before and after the show and during intermission contribute to the ambience, as does Janie Howland's appropriately funky bar set. The off stage placement of the 3-piece band, ably led by music director Todd Gordon, is unfortunate, however. That, along with the acoustical tiles in the coved ceiling, cause blending problems that detract from the enjoyment of the ensemble numbers.
Although fitting the Gloucester production into a tighter space and incorporating new cast members is in the hands of his stage manager/assistant director Nicole Jesson, Edmiston's contributions shouldn't be underestimated. For the production last summer, he reordered and reassigned songs, turning solos into duets and ensemble numbers to more equitably distribute the material among his talented performers. He also eliminated almost all spoken words and cut one of the numbers completely.
To emphasize that this is a revue of Jacques Brel songs for our time, Edmiston chooses to open with "The Desperate Ones," which packs a sobering one-two punch when followed by "Alone." He saves the more up-tempo (if only slightly more upbeat) "Marathon" to kick off the second half that includes this prescient lyric (from the 1968 English adaptation):
We must dance because the Fifties zing
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is at the Stuart Street Playouse/2nd Stage at the Radisson Hotel, Boston now through December 21st. Performances are Tuesday through Friday evenings at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm & 9pm and Sundays at 3pm & 7pm. Tickets are $42.50 on Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday and $47.50 for the Friday, Saturday & Sunday performances. Tickets are available from Telecharge at (800) 447-7400 and at the Stuart Street Playhouse Box Office, 200 Stuart Street. Parking in the Radisson Hotel garage is $6.00 when validated at the Stuart Street Playhouse Box Office.
Additional ticketing information:
Preferred member tickets are available at a 10% discount through Show of the Month Club at www.showofthemonth.com/shows/jacques_brel.asp or by calling (617) 338-1111. A discount for groups of 15 or more can be arranged through Show of the Month group sales at (617) 350-6000.
Half-price tickets for Jacques Brel have generally been available on the day of performance at the Bostix booths in Copley Square and Faneuil Hall.