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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Jacques Brel... is Again Alive and Well

Also see Bob's review of Sleeping Beauty Wakes

Jacques Brel
Forrest McClendon, Lindsay Mendez,
Rona Figueroa and Andy Kelso

Red Bank's Two River Theatre Company is currently concluding its 2010-2011 season with a revival of Eric Blau and Mort Shuman's durable 1968 Broadway classic, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. It is inevitable that this production will introduce new and captivated New Jersey audiences to the unique vision and rich musicality of this immensely gifted (Flemish born) French singer-songwriter whose haunting, thoughtful as well as sentimental, grim as well as funny, chansons made an enormous impact in France and internationally from the 1950s until his death from lung cancer in 1978 when he was but 49 years old.

If you come to Two River, you will be able to see and hear Forrest McClendon's sad and gentle heartbreaking performance of "Song for Old Lovers." There is the remembrance of the intense passion and careless betrayals which marked past years of the singer's relationship with his wife. McClendon imbues his recounting of these memories to his wife with a weary and sad tenderness. Then, as he conveys to her that he will be always be there for her, McClendon embodies the soul of an older man who, beyond his diminished physical passion and less explosive emotions, has a deep love, commitment and connection to his wife that only a life together could achieve. It is a sign of a remarkable understanding of others that a writer so young as Brel was could write such a song. In a totally different mode, McClendon brings vivid life to "Jackie" who wishes that he had the ability to be well liked by being "cute in a silly ass way." In case, you didn't know, McClendon is a Tony Award nominee this year for Best Actor in a Musical for his role in The Scottsboro Boys. Unfortunately, the latter has completed its Broadway run. However, lucky Two River audiences can now see McClendon display further aspects of his abundant talent.

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that "Song for Old Lovers" was first heard in Jacques Brel... in the 1975 film version (American Film Institute). It also was sung in the 2006 Gordon Greenberg directed off-Broadway revival

Andy Kelso scores repeatedly as the lead singer in several jaunty numbers, particularly "(I'm waiting for) Madeleine" along with its rueful finish. Among a number of anti-war songs here, Kelso brings powerful irony to the exceptionally clever songs "The Bulls" and "The Statue," although the former has an unfortunate lyric about bullfights: "it is the time when grocery clerks become Don Juan/ it is the time when all ugly girls turn into swans". This likely is the exception to the rule of the high quality of the English adaptation by Blau and Shuman.

Unfortunately, director Daniel Ostling sometimes directs his cast to overemphasize the emotionality of the material. Large, exaggerated gestures, posturing, and even lyrical phrasing are, particularly, imposed on Rona Figueroa. During one particularly emotionally distressed delivery, Ostling has her run both hands in a backward and upward motion at each side of her head to dishevel her hair to increase her already over the top desperation. Oh, I mustn't forget to mention just how beautiful a voice Figueroa possesses. Do either the gorgeous soprano voice of Figueroa or the grim "My Death" really call for such over the top tactics? Lindsay Mendez gets to nicely perform a charming "My Love" with the orchestra augmented by the on stage guitar playing of Andy Kelso.

The most prominent vibe of Jacques Brel ... is 1960s anti-war fervor, even as the songs as selected, programmed and staged suggest a timeless European setting. In so designing Jacques Brel ..., author-translators Eric Blau and Mort Shuman have given their show the universality and timelessness that characterize the best of Brel's music and lyrics.

There are any number of other notable songs here. In a somber mood, "Old Folks" posits "though you may live in town/ you live so far away/ When you've lived too long."

The vocally and dramatically thrilling, metaphoric showcase song "Carousel" in which the singer personifies the increasingly difficult, desperate and untenable grasping for pleasure and success is turned into a comic, less vocally challenging, literal sketch with endless bills and prescription drug addiction culminating in a curtain backing the cast falling to the ground causing them all to fall down. It did provoke lots of audience laughter and applause. Personally, I expected the conclusion of the song to follow. As it turned out that there would be more. I assume that the finale which followed, a full cast version of Brel's most famous song, the simplistic, but stirringly beautiful "If We Only Have Love" was beautifully sung. However, it was difficult to focus on it while trying to recuperate from the distressing "Carousel".

With the considerable efforts of the talented cast and the emotional and comic resonance of the score, this Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is clearly a crowd pleaser.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris continues performance (Evenings: Wednesday - Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Wednesday 1 pm / Saturday and Sunday 3 pm / Student Matinees: Thurs. 5/26 - 10 AM) through June 5, 2011, at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / on-line: www.trtc.org.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris Production Conception, English Lyrics and Additional Material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman/ Based on Jacques Brel's Lyrics and Commentary/ Music by Jacques Brel

Cast: Rona Figueroa / Andy Kelso/ Forrest McClendon/ Lindsay Mendez


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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