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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
ACT Theatre

Also see David's review of Lizard Boy

Cayman Ilika, Louis Hobson, and Eric Ankrim
First performed in 1968 off Broadway, it has been at least 15 or more years since a Seattle company has mounted Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which was a ground-breaking, long running songbook of songs (mostly with both music and lyrics by the now deceased master of the French chanson). Though no story was artificially grafted onto the individual songs (which are not from other musicals), Jacques Brel... features songs that have stories each their own, translated by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. The ACT Theatre/5th Ave Theatre co-production is directed with obvious affinity and understanding by David Armstrong and associate director Chryssie Whitehead, whose choreography is subtle, mood enhancing, and only showy where really called for.

A show such as this requires masterful interpreters of song, and Armstrong's cast, under the sure-handed musical direction of Joel Fram do not disappoint in any way. Louis Hobson (to be succeeded in the show April 14 by Matt Owen) has always had vocal chops, but here his acting of the songs shows his real growth and maturity. His delivery of "The Statue" is an emblem of his expanding acting range.Eric Ankrim, always engaging, gets big laughs as a young man's date with "Madeleine", and in general lights up the darker corners of the show. And Timothy McCuen Piggee segues seamlessly from darker material to lighter, filling each moment he is onstage with a clarity of purpose and a distinctly riveting baritone. His interpretation of "My Death" is perhaps his finest solo moment. And, when the three men perform "The Middle Class" it is the perfect collision of irony and comedy.

As to the ladies, Cayman Ilika's amazing, wide-ranging voice is one of the wonders of the current Seattle theatre world, but this young actress has an old soul and finds truth, beauty, and pain in such featured numbers as "Timid Frieda" and "Sons of..." . Kendra Kassebaum, a Broadway vet who has settled in these parts, is perhaps the cast member who gets this material as if she were born to interpret it. From "Ne me quitte pas" (sung in French, and interpolated from the rarely shown Jacques Brel... film version where Brel himself sang it) is simply sublime, and "Carousel" is a stunner, but, really, every second Kassebaum is on stage is riveting. The full company opens the show with the arousing "Marathon" (with slightly updated lyrics included), and the show's best-loved number "If We Only Have Love" brings the production to an emotional and satisfying end.

Tom Sturges' scenic, lighting, and projection designs are most effective, sometimes chillingly so, and Harmony Arnold's costumes are dynamite. The house band, a quintet led by pianist/resident music supervisor-director Dwight Beckmeyer is in perfect accord with the singers, and special kudos to Greg Fulton's accomplished solo guitar accompaniment of "Ne me quitte pas."

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris runs through May 17, 2015, at ACT Theatre, 7th and Union, Downtown Seattle. Go to either or for tickets, show times and other information.

Photo: Tracy Martin

- David Edward Hughes

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