Great voices are what’s needed to pull off Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, and though there is much to admire in the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble revival of the 1968 off-Broadway megahit, particularly Dan Fishbach’s imaginative direction and Anthony Lucca’s terrific four-piece combo, the cast mostly fails to do Brel vocal justice.

Make no mistake. Singing two-dozen of the legendary Belgian songwriter’s greatest hits is no easy task, and even voiced by world-class pipes, Brel’s quirky, often dour, occasionally monotonous mix of French music hall and smoky-cabaret-ready melodies can end up a matter of taste.

The songs for which Brel (1929-1978) is best known (the heartbreaking “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” translated as “If You Go Away,” the stirring “Quand On N’a Que l’Amour,” aka “If You Go Away,” and the dramatic “Amsterdam”) are easily his most memorable, others less so, and though Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s English lyrics for these three do approximate the Brel originals, others in the Blau-Shuman musical revue have been so completely reconceived and rewritten, audiences are given at best only half-Brel.

“Marathon” en anglais, for example, has little in common with “Les Flammandes” en français, and Brel’s brilliant, play-on-words-filled “La Valse A Mille Temps” becomes the considerably more pedestrian “Carousel.”

To his considerable credit, director Fishbach and choreographers Imani Alexander and Dara Weinberg have transformed each Brel-Blau-Shuman ditty into a mini story-telling production number.

Even solo turns involve the entire cast’s full participation as background players on scenic designer Alex Kolmanovsky’s stark but stunning charcoal set backed by musical director Lucca and band in full view from start to finish.

Still, with the exception of Miyuki Migagi’s grievously underutilized bell-like soprano, Marc Francoeur, Susan Kohler, and Michael Yapujian simply aren’t the world-class vocalists that could make even Brel’s oddest melodies soar, though all four deserve applause for performing unmiked and for adding dramatic backup and bits of dance throughout.

Lighting designer William Adashek earns high marks for adding dramatic bits of color to Kolmanovsky’s otherwise steel-gray set and to Denise Blasor’s monochromatic costumes via multi-hued lights reflected on and through embossed, clear plastic screens hanging from above.

Musical director Lucca on keyboard and his fellow musicians (Cyrus Elia on bass, Conor Malloy alternating with Ryan  McDiarmid on percussion, and Max Wagner on guitar) are all four as good as it gets.

Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris is produced by Ron Sossi in association with Gloria Levy. Nina Wrona is stage manager. Rachel Russell is assistant director.

Ultimately, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris may have those unfamiliar with the Belgian legend, particularly younger audiences members, wondering why his songs still get sung four decades after his death, and Brel aficionados longing for voices that might make this crystal clear.

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Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
July 2, 2017
Photos: Enci Box

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