Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
The songwriter and performer Jacques Brel died in 1978, but Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, the theatrical showcase of his songs, will probably live foreverespecially if it's performed and staged as well as it is in the gemlike production now at MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia.
On a minimalist set designed by Daniel Pinhaan open stage, a single pole containing several lightswith Jessica Winfield's pinpoint-perfect lighting, director Serge Seiden and choreographer Matthew Gardiner allow four extraordinary performers to do what they do best. Each of Brel's songs is a short story (in fact, some are mini-epics), and these singing actors bring them all, including the ones in French, to life in three dimensions.
Start with Natascia Diaz, who previously appeared in the 2006 Off-Broadway production of Jacques Brel. Slim and shattering, Diaz can be sly as in the opening number, "Le Diable/Ca Va" (in which the Devil describes his delight at the state of human life on earth), emotionally draining in "My Death," and quietly chilling in "Old Folks."
Bobby Smith delivers riveting performances throughout, from the barely suppressed anger of "Jackie" to the understated storytelling of "Fanette" and the bravura of "Amsterdam."
Bayla Whitten, ingenuous and wide-eyed, shifts from the ruefulness of "I Loved" to a clever, surprising rendition of "Timid Frieda" and a sweeping, increasingly rapid "Sons of." Sam Ludwig is best with songs of frustration and bitter irony like "Statue," "Funeral Tango" and "Next." The four also have their vivid moments as a group, specifically the vaudevillian spin on "Madeleine" and the raucous "Middle Class."
Costume designer Janine Sunday bows to the work's roots in the 1960s with chic mini-dresses for the women. Smith wears a natty suit that becomes increasingly disheveled, and Ludwig exemplifies the young workingman in jacket and jeans.
Music director Jenny Cartney deserves credit for both her own playing (piano and accordion) and her oversight of three other musicians. Their work can be full-blooded, but also as subtle as chimes sounding gently in the background.