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Review: ‘Jacques Brel: Songs From His World’ at Source Theatre

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Time has not dimmed the impact or abundant love for the musical works of Jacques Brel; even now, nearly 40 years since his untimely death. That is apparent from the audience response and my own critic’s view of The In Series’ very own, terrifically accomplished, fresh-take, musical revue, Jacques Brel: Songs from His World.

With the assured, visually appealing, movement-oriented stage direction of Steven Scott Mazzola and superb music direction/piano accompaniment of Reenie Codelka, Jacques Brel: Songs from His World is performed by a top-notch ensemble of four classically trained singer/actors. They are tenor Byron Jones (as the Jacques Brel alter ego) , soprano Fieta Hylton, bass-baritone Simon Charette and tenor Brian J. Shaw. (Cast bios are here.)

The Company of Jacques Brel Songs From His World. Photograph by Angelisa Gillyard.

The production is comprised of a song-cycle of 22 of Brel’s remarkable songs; those of tender love sought, of unrequited love, of regret, of mocking cynical numbers about war and middle class values, and more than a soupcon of blissful comic numbers. (See end note for the 22 songs with their English titles). The songs were selected from Brel’s song list of 150 composed from the 1950s to early 1970s.

Of interest for purists, and those, like me, who can find English translations of poetry and lyrics wanting, the songs are sung in the original French rather than English translations. The musical numbers are sung with beauty, distinction, emotional flair, and some joyful comic physicality. Also, with compliments to In Series adaptors/translators Carla Hübner and Nick Olcott Enlish, translations are projected and easily visible at audience left.

Let me get this out of the way: the In Series production is not a hacikneyed revisit to the already well-covered territory of 1968’s Jacque Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The newly created Jacques Brel: Songs from His World has its own spirit and arc as a sung-through, nicely-staged musical revue of Brel songs. The In Series production roams about the Brel mental/musical landscape from some well-trod numbers such as “Ne Me Quitte Pas” or “Amsterdam” or “The Bourgeoisie” or that anti-war ditty, “Next.” But the majority are Brell works that might slip off the tongue quickly when the first piano notes are played. And they deserve their new attention for those who are familiar with Brel or those new to his works.

Byron Jones with Simon Charette and Brian J. Shaw. Photograph by Angelisa Gillyard.

Overall in its smart pacing, Jacques Brel: Songs from His World, is a like a misty journey through the muddy geography and under cloudy skies of great Western European cities like Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Amsterdam, and Paris as well as the cold beaches of Flanders after the two great 20th Century conflagrations that shattered Europe’s physical and cultural landscapes.

The production is also an internal journey, tinged with plenty of pathos, into the heart and soul of one man, one singer-songwriter who began to represent the new post war Baby Boomer generation. They were less rigidly connected to Tin Pan Alley or Broadway, but wanted something of their own that was not just rock-and-roll or country; something where the words and sentiments dominate, not so much the musical notes.

The 22 songs selected for the In Series production makes abundantly clear that Brel’s lyrics are poetry to be best heard close up without amplification in a smaller stage setting. Songs about men longing for love. Women longing to be understood. Men desperate to survive war. Old folk not wanting to let go of life together or each other for fear of getting lost. Of people wounded emotionally. Of people comically living life.

The set and projections for Jacques Brel: Songs from His World are by Jonathan Dahm Robertson. It was a rough-hewn wood platform like an old train station with several riser steps adorned with wooden boxes and old style valises that greet the audience. The set added immeasurably to the sense of a physical and mental journey. An evocative lighting design by Marianne Meadows that moved from daylight to grey’s were simply lovely. Clare Parker’s costume design was spot-on to give a sense of time, a time when dress was a more formal affair and even casual times could require a tie for a man.

Brian J. Shaw, Fleta Hylton, Simon Charette, and Byron Jones. Photograph by Angelisa Gillyard.

How fortunate that DC’s own In Series has brought Jacques Brel’s poetry and music to not only aging children (and I am one) who can recall where they were when they first heard a Brel song either sung by him or covered by, say, Judy Collins or Joan Baez (and for me a live concert in 1967 by Nina Simone at Rutgers. My God, how I was transfixed by Simone), but to audiences of all ages.

So for those who are knowledgeable of Brel and for those wanting to take in a intimate, unamplified winning evening, head to the Source for Jacques Brel: Songs from His World. Then, afterwards, find your way to one of the eateries on 14th Street and let Brel’s world sink in. As for me, the show also got me to remember that then and now, I considered Brel the musical equivalent to the French New Wave cinema and its group of young director who made movies like Goddard’s “Breathless.” Music and movies, so simple yet so layered and unforgettable no matter how many times a particular movie has been viewed.

Running time: About one hour and forty five minutes, with one intermission

Jacques Brel: Songs from His World plays through November 19, 2017, at the In Series performing at Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7763, or purchase them online.

Song list Note: Jacques Brel: Songs from His World

“The City Was Falling Asleep”
“Brussels
“The Flat Land grey beach
“Flemish Women
“Marieke Bruges and Ghent
“Amsterdam”
“Lady Bountiful”
“The Bourgeoisie”
“Old Folks”
“Next”
“The Dove”
“There Is”
“In Spring”
“Fnette”
“The Bachelor’s Dance”
“The Drunk”
“When We Have Nothing But Love”
“Madeleine”
“The Song of Old Lovers”
“NE ME QUITTE PAS”
“The Next Love”
“Isabelle”

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One Response to Review: ‘Jacques Brel: Songs From His World’ at Source Theatre

  1. Darby DeJarnette
    Darby DeJarnette November 6, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

    I’m hoping I get to see this. My first experience with Brel WAS a production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I’m happy to see this production pull in some different material since so much of his music is fantastic. This song list is pretty solid.

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