Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris
Brel, the Belgian singer and songwriter, is in fact no longer alive; he died in 1978, but his songs live on. He was little known on this side of the Atlantic in 1968 when Eric Blau and Mort Shuman created this showcase of Brel's songs in English translation for an Off-Broadway audience.
Petosa has designated each member of his ensemble as a specific archetype, costumed evocatively by Sekula Sinadinovski. The ensemble members are, in alphabetical order, Nicole Adams, the working-class woman; Matt Bailey, the tough guy in a leather jacket; J.D. Goldblatt, the sailor; Valerie Leonard, the prostitute; Channez McQuay, the grande dame; Carolyn Pasquantonio, the flapper; Christopher Yates, the bourgeois gentleman of middle years; and Devron T. Young, the tramp, who occasionally maneuvers the other performers as if he was their puppeteer.
The production opens with "Marathon," Brel's kaleidoscopic vision of the decades of the 20th century, well echoed by JJ Kaczynski's projection designs in a crooked gold-leaf picture frame. The lyrics reference Hitler, Stalin, and the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima; the images continue up to the present with familiar faces including Bill Gates and George W. Bush.
The most striking single moment of the entire production is J.D.'s impassioned solo on "Amsterdam," a hard-edged look at the drunken sailors and dissipated whores of the Dutch port. While all eight performers have their moments, for the most part they do best in ensemble numbers such as "Middle Class."
Traditionally, the revue is performed as dramatic song scenes on a nondescript set. Here, Petosa has used scenic designer James Kronzer to bring icons of Paris to the Olney stage: the base of the Eiffel Tower and a vast, rolling replica of one of the rose windows of Notre Dame Cathedral join the atmospheric projections, accompanied by Matthew Nelson's sound design of ambient noise and unintelligible speech.
The general effect is overpowering, though occasionally effective, as when Pasquantonio simulates death by drowning. She lies on her stomach on a raised platform and sings "My Death" through the central hole in the rose window, as the other performers lie far below her on the stage floor.
Dance consultant Gabrielle Orcha is inventive enough, but her specific staging ideas are frequently mystifying in context. Why does the cast goose-step to "Brussels," a non-political bit of fluff about life in the hedonistic 1920s? Why does Bailey hang suspended from a rope, his foot in a noose, while singing "Alone" in front of a projection of the galaxy? The staging of "If We Only Have Love" appears to have some symbolic point, but its meaning never becomes obvious.
Conductor Christopher Youstra keeps the musicians in hand as they perform virtually non-stop.
Olney Theatre Center