Why in the world would the French cabaret songs of a Belgian expatriate be of any interest to an American audience several decades remote? The current Rhode Island College production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris does a good job of giving an answer.
These are love songs, mainly, songs of lament and sometimes of desperation. If longing for love is per se sentimentality, then Brel was a sentimentalist. He was both a hard-bitten realist as well as a wide-eyed romantic, since he refused to blink at reality, at the hurt that love inflicts.
The 24-year-old who hit Paris in 1953 ended up writing more than 300 songs in his not very long lifetime (puffing Gauloises got him before he was 50). Brel began singing his own songs in cabarets, and after a slow start he became appreciated for his bittersweet melodic excursions. Though many of his songs were celebrations of life, his offering was basically French existentialism with quarter-notes. By 1957, his success got him an American record release, and his uncompromising light-dark lyrics went on to influence many songwriters, from Leonard Cohen to David Bowie. That the revue was titled Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris had to do with his shocking announcement in 1966 that he would perform no more.
This is the farewell production of retiring RIC director P. William Hutchinson, who forged the longtime academic alliance between the theater department and Trinity Rep. The program of 23 songs sticks mainly to the familiar 1974 record album, with a couple of important additions. The 1968 premiere of this revue, with lyrics in English and Brel observations added by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, became an off-Broadway hit. It was described in the New York Times as "impassioned and powerful, capable of stirring an audience almost to a frenzy."
The RIC Jacques Brel is a meditative excursion, as befits the cumulative tone of the revue. Three café tables, each holding a wine bottle and glass, are widely separated, a singer at each isolated station. Denise Caron, Patti Nolin, and Fredric Scheff are joined on stage by musical director Joseph A. Carvalho at a grand piano.
The breadth of Brelís subject matter is well sampled. Itís not just the young and the restless that he understood, but also "The Old Folks," who stare at a silver clock "thatís hanging on the wall / That waits for us all." In "Marieke," which retains some Flemish lyrics, Brel conflates missing a loved one and longing for his homeland, his Vlanderland. In the bullfight of "The Bulls," grocery clerks and "ugly girls" get out of their limited selves and into the carnage, which ends with reference to Carthage and "olé ó Saigon" ó and, updated, Baghdad. (I wish Brelís vitriolic anti-war "Au Suivant (Next)" ó had been added.)
A couple of additions have been made to the usual soundtrack lineup, though: "Chanson Sans Parole (Song Without Words)" and the unforgettable "Ne Me Quitte Pas (Donít Leave Me)." A popular version of the latter is called "If You Go Away" and has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, among others. Hutchinson has staged this with Scheff adding verses from the English translation to Caronís French original. The contrast between the earnestness of the former and the fervent dignity of the latter is quite powerful. Caron plunges into the felt sense of the song, which she rescues from pathos by the sheer actorly honesty of her performance.
The same can be said, this time with amazement, of Caronís rendition of "Carousel," a metaphor for the swirl of life, which she spins from joyful through perplexed to horrified. This next-to-last song, coming before the affirmative ensemble closer "If We Only Have Love," is the riveting emotional highpoint of the evening.
In all the songs Scheff performs, the sweet authority of his opera-trained tenor fills the lyrics with credibility as his booming voice fills the hall. He and Nolin do well in occasionally leavening the evening with some necessary humor. She minces across the stage in "Timid Freida," luggage in hand as a newcomer to town who soon gets brazen. He gives a giddy schoolboy joy to "Mathilde," about a girlfriend who has just returned after long absence, which softens the anticipation of the hell he knows sheís again going to put him through.
As Scheff informs us at the beginning, Brel didnít feel his attitude toward life was downbeat, he thought it was "in rapport with the world as it is." As this RIC production reminds us, even 36 years after this show premiered, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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