Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through Aug 27
Originally staged by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is one of those venerable musical revues frequently weighed down with odious and stale French kitsch. Will the actors be caparisoned in silly black berets? Will the gentleman wear pencil-thin black mustaches? Will the ladies have to do the can-can and coquettishly mew “zut alors!” between the numbers?
Director Dan Fishbach may eschew the conventionally irritating French clichés of the sentimental croissant-and-escargot variety. On the other hand, his staging boasts very little personality at all. This crisp, precise production feels like the pleasant sort of entertainment you might find staged in an airport waiting room or a chain hotel’s lounge. A bit more Gallic passion might help.
The great creator of French chanson in the mid-20th century, Brel has been called the Bob Dylan of France. To me, though, his music seems more akin to Kurt Weill and Brecht. In this production, the strongest numbers are those which manage to convey scathing satire and savage regret. The ensemble is undeniably engaging: four performers of varying age who dance about and sing Brel’s songs about love, loss, and the ironies of life — but there’s a peculiar lack of emotional heft to their delivery, nor is there any attempt to provide context for the numbers.
Brel’s revue has travelled so widely over the decades that it really requires a compelling innovation to sustain interest — which may be what’s missing in Fishbach’s generic staging. It almost feels as if the producers are following a checklist: regret, check; sentiment, check; nostalgia, check. Missing from the list is any sense of edge or quirkiness, so prominent in Brel’s original renditions.
The songs are meant to be rough and tender; instead, what we get is an un-bohemian polish, with an excess of technical skill on the part of the performers that undercuts the intimacy and sense of vulnerability the music requires.
Fishbach basically sets the stage and lets the performers do their thing. And the cast certainly is likable and technically assured. Susan Kohler’s elegant, sad-faced turn in “Marieke,” and her display of clear desperation in the droll and ironic “Carousel” are quite powerful. Michael Yapujian, a charismatic and extremely promising newcomer, charms in the sweetly romantic “Bachelor’s Dance.” In “Middle Class,” a hilariously trenchant sendup of youthful rebellion, Marc Francoeur drolly channels David Bowie. And Miyuki Miyagi edges into lovely pathos in her rendition of the beautiful “Timid Frieda.”
Yet even under Anthony Lucca’s capable musical direction, the piece rarely feels more than workmanlike. The cast is certainly competent, but why no performers of color? France is as multicultural as any nation: why not utilize that fact to craft a uniquely modern, diverse staging of the show? That would truly bring the piece into the modern day.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles; Wed.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.; through Aug 27. (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.