Anyone under a certain age who hears the title Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris may well wonder, “Who the hell is  this Jacques Brel?”—a question likely to provoke a cry of “Sacrilege!” from more seasoned theater aficionados.

To clear up any confusion, Jacques Brel was among the most idolized French-language singer-songwriters of the mid-20th Century—and was indeed still alive and well and most likely still living in Paris when the show bearing his name began its over four-year-long run off-Broadway in January of 1968. Sadly, a little over ten years later, Brel was dead at forty-nine.

Fortunately, Brel’s music lives on, Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris’s second L.A. appearance in the past two years making it perfectly clear just what made Brel’s music so popular (over 25 million copies sold worldwide), meaningful, and memorable.

Whereas, the original New York production was a fairly straightforward cabaret performance, one which had its cast of four singing English translations of Brel’s many hits, DOMA Theatre Company’s current intimate staging ties the songs together with a familial thread, the production’s eight performers portraying three generations of a Brel-loving family under Hallie Baran’s imaginative direction and Kelly Dodson’s assured musical direction.

There’s grandmother AnnaLisa Erickson, son Jon Paul Burkhart and his wife Kristin Towers-Rowles, the latter’s sister Josie Yount, granddaughter Mary Mather and her fiancé Keith Barletta, the daughter-in-law’s brother Tim Miller, and his girlfriend Angela Todaro. The eight extended family members have reunited in grandma’s attic to sort through family memorabilia—and to sing a couple dozen Brel classics, backed by a four-piece band conveniently seated in the attic’s mezzanine.

Following a rousing full-cast “Marathon,” Brel chansons get divvied up among six talented cast members.

An impressive Erickson performs a torchy “My Death,” her character recalling a 1962 Twilight Zone episode which starred a very young Robert Redford as Mr. Death. She sings of the sailors and whore of “Amsterdam,” Brel at his most vulgar—and his most devastating, a song which turns into a full-cast production number featuring guest performer M.A. Gomez in rock star mode. Erickson waltzes with death in “Old Folks” and belts out “Bruxelles.” another production number, this one vaudeville-style complete with straw hats. “Funeral Tango” provides Erickson with a vocal showcase which the regional theater vet performs with extraordinary power and depth.

A particularly strong Burkhart solos “Alone” as the family members go through albums, books, boxes, and trunks, then sings with excitement and dread of the return of “Mathilde,” and later waits in line for his army physical, captured in the follow spot as he sings a dramatic “Next.” (“One day I’ll cut my legs off or burn myself alive. Anything, I’ll do anything to get out of line to survive, not ever to be next.”) “The Bulls” has Burkhart backed by family member sporting souvenirs of the grandparents’ trips—horned hats, fans, capes—and saluting the titular beasts to a flamenco beat.

Towers-Rowles, StageSceneLA’s Breakthrough Musical Theater Performer Of The Year, sings a nostalgic “I Loved” to a photo of a certain “old what’s-his-name” she invited to her wedding. A passionate “Sons Of” provides the triple-threat with an especially fine acting/vocal showcase. (“Sons of the great or sons unknown, all were children like your own…”) “Song For Old Lovers” is Towers-Rowles and Burkhart’s gorgeously performed duet about undying love. “Carousel” begins with Towers-Rowles holding a music box, the tiny dancer inside turning into a real live ballerina (Todaro) as the song spins faster and faster to the merry-go-round waltz of life. Wow!

As the family’s lipstick lesbian, the always sensational Yount gets a pair of songs usually reserved for men. In “Jacky,” she’s a young woman not yet grown up and still unsure about the future (“If I could be for just one little hour, cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way.”) “Fanette” has Yount recalling a lesbian love affair in a striking performance backed only by Yuichiro “Kevin” Asami on acoustic guitar. Yount’s tour de force number is “You’re Not Alone,” an ironic title since her character appears to be just that.

Mather excels in two songs which spotlight her crystal clear soprano, “Timid Frieda” and “Marieke.” About the latter, Mather declares, “like most sad songs, it sounds better in another language,” and in fact the songstress performs it in three, including Flemish, a language more commonly spoken in Brel’s native Belgium than French.

A terrific Barletta completes the vocal sextet with “Bachelor’s Dance,” which has the family outsider flirting with them all, including Grandmother, and “The Statue,” which he sings, rifle in hand, to the statue of a fallen soldier.

The men join voices for “Middle Class,” which has them drunkenly saluting Les Bourgeois. (“The middle class are just like me. The older they get, the dumber they get.”)

Brel himself is featured on vinyl, singing one of his signature songs in French—“Ne Me Quitte Pas” aka “If You Go Away”. The entire cast join voices for arguably Brel’s second best known song, the inspiring “If We Only Have Love,” in the evening’s powerful grand finale.

Ballerina Todaro has choreographed several sparkling dance sequences in addition to doing some exquisite toework herself.

The excellent Jacques Brel Band is made up of accompanist Leigh Anne Gillespie on piano, Asami (who did the musical arrangements) on guitar, Rob Bowman on bass, and Anjilla Piazza on drums.

Cullen Pinney’s lighting design is vivid and mood-enhancing. The uncredited set and costumes are also quite effective. Sound designer Joseph Montiel does his best with the Met Theatre’s only so-so sound system, multi-part harmonies sounding tinny. Stacey Cortez is stage manager and Jason Henderson technical director. Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris is produced by Mike Abramson. Shoen Smith is artistic director and producer and Lemuel H. Thornton III is associate producer.

DOMA Theatre Company’s presentation of Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris will prove a particular treat to fans of the Belgian chanteur, and will likely send the uninitiated to googling Brel’s original performances. Birth, death, and all of the life passages in between… Jacques Brel found a way to sing about it all, as this excellent Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris makes abundantly clear.

The Met Theatre, 1089 North Oxford Avenue, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
September 18, 2011

Comments are closed.