note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Todd Gordon, piano
Scott Nason, percussion
Mike Leggio, bass
Gloucester Stage Company has brought back, for a few performances, its satisfying production of JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE & WELL & LIVING IN PARIS; this 1968 celebration of Mr. Brel’s French-into-English songs about love and life has held up very well, indeed --- it has even survived Mr. Brel himself, who died in 1978 (shouldn’t the title be changed by now?). I remember, as a college freshman, how Mr. Brel’s songs had a cult status among fellow classmates who felt as worldly and cynical singing them as previous generations must have felt towards Edith Piaf and, going back even further, Kurt Weill; in a few years, Mr. Brel would be eclipsed by Stephen Sondheim, but that’s another story --- and another sound.
There is nothing to JACQUES BREL other than its songs; as far as I can tell, the original show was done in cabaret style and so have subsequent productions. Here, director Scott Edmiston has come up with a concept: he sets his production in a Brechtian dive where a quartet of “desperate ones” congregate to bare their souls and spill their guts. Mr. Edmiston has reshuffled the order of the songs according to mood; thus, the somber numbers now predominate, enlivened sporadically by the jauntier ones, resulting in a flaw I never noticed before in Mr. Brel’s artistry: he covers the (symbolic) waterfront, all right --- lust; betrayal; loneliness; rejection --- but for all the talk about love love love, none of the BREL songs touch upon domestic bliss or long-term commitments, which makes the banner finale “If We Only Have Love” unintentionally ironic in its switching from the evening’s ape to an eleven o’clock angel (oddly, Mr. Brel’s most well-known song in America has never been included in the show: “Ne me quitte pas….ne me quitte pas….ne me quitte pas….”).
Earlier this year, Mr. Edmiston gave Boston a Pinter-perfect BETRAYAL in all its mysterious hush; now he demonstrates his versatility with twenty-four mini-dramas, each with its own shape and style. His staging is simple and delightful: each step, gesture and tableau is clever, exact and to the poignant or satiric point and he is aided and abetted by a lively, prancing quartet. Eric Rubb is at his best in staccato phrasing (his dry voice flattens when he tries to soar) and Carolyn deLima manages to be affecting even though she is dolled up to be the “hot” one of the troupe. Drew Poling has a rousing, classically-trained voice with lungpower to spare: even his shouts, whispers and declamation come out as well-rounded melody (his presentational style is that of a teddy bear out to convince us he’s a grizzly). Best of all, there’s Leigh Barrett. This sunshiny singer-actress continues to impress whenever I have had the good fortune to see her (I still regret having missed her in SpeakEasy’s production of PASSION). Her natural high spirits make her sad songs even more memorable: when a dark cloud passes over the warming sun, how we long for it to smile on us again! Ms. Barrett, of course, stops the show by leading the others through the vertiginous “Carousel”, but her most treasured moment comes when she sits in a spot, shawl around her shoulders, to sing, as sweet and pure as spring water, “Marieke”. And to think --- come November, Boston will hear her as Sally in Overtures Productions’ FOLLIES IN CONCERT where she will perform my favorite Sondheim number, “Losing My Mind”. Christmas is coming early this year….