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Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Cinnabar Theater

Review by Patrick Thomas


Julia Hathaway, Kevin Singer, Michael Van Why and Valentina Osinski
It's not easy making sense of the world. Not now, certainly, and not even in the "simpler" times of the '50s and '60s, when Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel penned most of the songs that became part of the revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, currently playing at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.

Like all great artists, Brel never let the impossibility of a task dissuade him from attempting it. Over the course of several decades, Brel wrote songs of love, angst, social satire and cultural commentary which, though never gelling into a full "unified theory" of the human condition, gave listeners new points of view on what it means to be alive and to connect (or not) with our fellow travelers.

Brel wrote several songs that have become classics (most notably "Ne Me Quitte Pas") and been covered by artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Liza Minnelli, Barry Manilow, Sting, and Nirvana. His work has also influenced songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Tom Waits and Stephen Sondheim.

You will hear all these influences and more if you make your way to Petaluma for this quite excellent production that, in some ways, could be considered the first-ever jukebox musical. Though there's no cheesy/melodramatic story line a la Mamma Mia! or Rock of Ages, there's definitely a thematic throughline, with the order of the songs combining to deliver a message: "We're all on a journey we can't comprehend, but must nonetheless complete. But while we're traveling, perhaps we can be companions and share our astonishment at the weirdness of it all."

Taking you on this journey is a cast of four talented performers who (under the able direction of Elly Lichtenstein) gallop through some numbers and linger over others—in just the right balance.

The set by designer Wayne Hovey creates a lovely environment in which the performers can ply their trade. A series of stepped platforms is backed by a façade meant to mimic a Parisian street scene: the local bistro, street lamps and benches, and windows with overflowing flowerboxes. The windows of Le Pub Saint-Germain double as a projection surface where supporting images appear throughout the show. The five-piece band is stage left of the bistro door, as though sitting at sidewalk café tables. Lighting designer Krista Smith has also done excellent work, matching both the energetic and more thoughtful aspects of the show with subtle, moody glows and illuminating washes.

The real star of the show is, of course, Brel's brilliant music. The four cast members—Julia Hathaway, Valentina Osinski, Kevin Singer and Michael Van Why—have a wonderful time interpreting the two dozen or so songs, and their joy (and occasional angst) is infectious. It's a delight to hear good singers perform songs they love—and want you to love, too.

Kevin Singer is the best of the bunch, delivering his tunes (especially "Jackie") with passion, verve and a delightful sense of humor. He can be powerful when he needs to be, subtle when that's what's called for, and always charming. Julia Hathaway does a lovely job with "Marieke," including delivering the verses written in Flemish in that language. Valentina Osinski's voice, though it has a lovely tone and is generally on pitch, sometimes lacks the power required to deliver Brel's tougher punches and overcome the volume of the backing band. Michael Van Why gives a performance of "Amsterdam" with real bravado, but when it comes to his stage movement, the man could use a little loosening up. As an ensemble, they do a stellar job with the harmonies, especially in the opening number, "Marathon."

All four look great in the costumes provided by designer Pat Fitzgerald. Everything is in black and white and shades of grey, with accents of blood red—a scarf, a vest, a tie. The look is dashing, sexy, a little tattered around edges, all in keeping with the passion of Brel's songs.

The band, led by guitarist Al Haas and accordionist Robert Lunceford, does a wonderful job, beautifully evoking the required Gallic mood.

If you like the music of Brel, you'll love this production. If you like the music of the artists he has inspired (such as Sondheim, Cohen and Waits), you'll also probably enjoy an evening at the Cinnabar. Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is filled with soul and desire and heartbreak and humor. And humanity. Above all, humanity. As the final number says, "We're on a carousel, a crazy carousel ..." We can't get off, so we might as well enjoy the ride.

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris runs through January 26 at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35 general, $25 for those 21 and under. Tickets and additional information are available at www.cinnabartheater.org or by calling 707-763-8920.


Photo: Eric Chazankin


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Patrick Thomas



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