When the musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris began its over four-year-long run off-Broadway in January of 1968, Jacques Brel was indeed still alive, and at the age of thirty-eight, one assumes still well and most likely still living in Paris.  Sadly, a little over ten years later, Brel was dead at forty-nine, a life ended much too soon.

Fortunately, Brel’s music lives on, and now Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris’s first Los Angeles revival in years allows Southland audiences to discover—or rediscover—what made Brel’s music so popular (over 25 million copies sold worldwide), meaningful, and memorable.

My guess is that the original New York production was a fairly straightforward cabaret performance, its cast of four simply standing in front of microphones and singing English translations of Brel’s many hits.

With master director Jon Lawrence Rivera helming the current Colony Theatre revival, audiences know they can expect something quite different, and not surprisingly, Rivera delivers an altogether brilliant reimagining of the revue from start to finish.

John H. Binkley’s set design (eight chairs arranged at an angle in front of a closed coffin with music director Brent Crayon and the orchestra seated onstage) is our first clue that something different is afoot.  A look at the song list is our second clue; the first song (“Marathon”) has been jettisoned, one of a number of changes made in the 2006 off-Broadway revival. When the evening’s four performers make their entrances, dressed in subdued-hued costumes by Dianne K. Graebner, it becomes clear that this Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris may well be the first musical revue set at funeral (and later, in Act Two, at a burial).

While the choice may seem at first a bit macabre (and ironic in view of the show’s title), it’s an oddly appropriate one.  Brel wrote songs about life, love, loss, memories, and in the case of three of the songs from Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris (“My Death,” “Le Moribond/My Last Supper,” and “Funeral Tango”), about death.

Those who fear that Brel according to Rivera will end up a two-hour downer can rest assured that, despite looking the end of life square in the face, this Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris spends most of its time celebrating life and love.

Though there is virtually no spoken dialog, director Rivera has each of his four performers play a distinctive role.  Eileen Barnett would appear to be the grieving widow, Jennifer Shelton the daughter (secretary? mistress?) of the deceased, Gregory Franklin a friend/coworker/childhood chum, and Zachary Ford, perhaps, the soldier son of the man whose life is being commemorated. When Ford opens the suitcase he has brought along with him and pulls out an accordion, which he then proceeds to play, you know that Rivera, as expected, has tricks up his sleeve.

The evening’s two dozen or so songs are of just about every tempo and mood.  Shelton recalls her childhood in her exquisite soprano in “I Loved.” Franklin sings “Jackie” to a mambo beat, his character an aging roué/Vegas showman. (“If I could be for just one little hour, cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way.”) Ford leads the quartet singing the bouncy “Madeleine” ever faster and faster, all four demonstrating in perfect sync their impatience at waiting for the title character. Franklin recalls a lost love, “Fanette,” with impeccable accompaniment by Ford on accordion, that most French of musical instruments. Barnett sings “Le Moribond” in French (a solid B+ for the accent) with Ford singing back the English version (“My Last Supper”), then taking over the lead. Barnett’s stirring performance of “Sons Of” is dramatic and moving. (“Sons of the great or sons unknown, all were children like your own…”) Franklin’s Act One Finale, “Amsterdam,” is Brel at his most vulgar, and his most devastating.

In the second act, graveside, Barnett sings arguably Brel’s best known song, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” in French, and as powerfully as I’ve heard it sung.  “The Middle Class” becomes a drunken salute to “Les Bourgeois” with Ford and Franklin joined by musical director/vocalist Crayon. (“The middle class are just like me. The older they get, the dumber they get.”) Shelton’s “Old Folks” once again showcases her crystal clear soprano, and later “My Death” proves that she can belt with the best of them.  “Marieke” has Barnett singing evocatively in three languages including Flemish, FYI a language more commonly spoken in his native Belgium than French. “Next” has Ford lining up for his army physical, in the same way that he is waiting his turn for life’s experiences, the song steadily building in power until its explosive climax.  (“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.”) Shelton then comforts him with “No Love, You’re Not Alone.”

The final two numbers are among Brel’s best, and best known. The four-part harmony “Carousel” is a waltz sung about the merry-go-round of life, spinning faster and faster and faster, with great carousel-like lighting by Adam Bluementhal. (It’s a shame, though, that the English lyrics couldn’t retain the clever double meaning of the original French’s “La Valse A Mille Temps.)

Finally, with Barnett singing a stirring lead vocal, “If We Only Have Love” provides an inspiring finale to the evening’s funereal festivities. (Oxymoron intended.)

Superlatives are in order for Barnett, Ford, Franklin, and Shelton, four of Los Angeles’ finest musical theater performers, and since they have proven themselves fine dramatic actors in straight plays, it’s no wonder that under Rivera’s direction, don’t just sing the songs. They live them.

Crayon (on piano) and his onstage orchestra (Chris Mello on guitar, Jeff Novack and Oliver Steinberg on bass, and Emiliano Almeida on drums) couldn’t be better.  Binkley’s scenic design, Graebner’s costumes, Cricket S. Myer’s sound design, and most especially Blumenthal’s gorgeous and ever-changing lighting design are top drawer, as Colony subscribers have come to expect. Properties design and set dressing are by MacAndME.  Crystal M. Munson is production stage manager.

It’s been a long wait for Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris to make its triumphal return to Los Angeles. Under Jon Lawrence Rivera’s brilliant directorial guidance, the Colony Theatre production proves to have been well worth the wait.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
April 10, 2010
Photos: Michael Lamont

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