Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at Creative Cauldron is a show for music lovers. It has a terrific cast who are wonderful storytellers through both their voices and their actions. Creative Cauldron opened its new season with a bravura performance of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris – an uncommon theater piece in that the story is not a single narrative chronicled from opening number to final bows, but rather a series of stories told with each of the 24 captivating songs.
Who is Jacques Brel and is he still alive and well? While Monsieur Brel passed away in 1978, his music is very much alive and well not just in Paris but around the world. He was a Belgian (do not call him a Frenchman, please) singer-songwriter whose songs have been covered by hundreds of artists ranging from David Bowie and Frank Sinatra to Shirley Bassey and Judy Collins. You probably know some of his songs even if you don’t know his name.
In 1968, the show opened off-Broadway and ran for 1,847 performances. It featured Brel’s music, lyrics, and commentary with English translations and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. Since then, it became a 1975 film and has been revived off-Broadway (with some changes) and produced on most all the major world stages.
This production includes all but one number from the original production but feels fresh and contemporary. While each song tells a story, we find a number of themes including love, loss, war, and death, all with a measure of cynicism and hope mixed in.
Thankfully, the four actors who perform the largely theatrical numbers have both the vocal and acting talents to lift the show above the level of a common musical revue. Alan Naylor is a standout. In “Fanette,”a ballad of love and betrayal, Alan hits an emotional high point. His vocals are rich and expressive; his connection with the audience is particularly strong. His connection is also compelling in “Bachelor’s Dance,” a song with a Renaissance feel. He has an expressive face that can do angst and comedy, harder-edge as in “Amsterdam” and vulnerable in “Next.” He stands out among the strong ensemble in “Desperate Ones.” Alan is a joy to listen to and to watch.
Shaina Virginia Kuhn has a stunningly pure voice with great emotional depth that reaches its climax in the poignant “Old Folks.” Kuhn takes Brel’s lyrics, “The old folks never die. They just put down their heads and go to sleep one day. They hold each other’s hand like children in the dark. But one will get lost anyway,” and conveys the story of a couple in their final days with a sensitivity that could have become overwrought in less capable hands. She brings power and strength to the show’s closing number, “If We Only Have Love,” as the ensemble joins her for an uplifting finish to the evening.
One of the reasons for the show’s success is the cast’s amazing articulation skills that allow the audience to understand each song’s lyrics. Brel liked to give his stories and lyrics a twist at the end and without the good diction and enunciation, the audience would miss it. This can be especially challenging in the more up-tempo songs such as “Brussels” with Katie McManus as the central storyteller. Her confident and playful performance combined with engaging, clear vocals create a fun “Give Them the Old Razzle-Dazzle”- a Kander and Ebbish kind of song, but watch out for the twist at the end. Katie also does well as she shows a more mature, expressive side in “Sons of” and “You’re Not Alone.”
Rounding out the cast, John Loughney’s shining moment comes in the comedic “Funeral Tango.” As the deceased, he laments phony friends, crocodile tears, and a life without true love. John has an “everyman” kind of voice (if everyman could actually sing at a Broadway stage level) and easily shifts characters from dead, to lecherous in “Timid Frieda,” to bullfighter in “The Bulls.”His wildly changing ideas about his girl “Mathilde” are another fun moment in the show.
Considering the range of songs and strong sentiments, it’s remarkable that there are only a couple of moments where the emotion goes over the top. I might have wanted a bit more restraint in “Marieke” but given the nature of Brel’s music and lyrics, I was impressed by co-directors Matt Conner and Laura Connors Hull’s abilities to keep the overall show in check.
In a show with 24 songs plus overture, it can often be difficult to remember any of the individual songs days after the show. But Conner and Hull have leveraged the strengths of their cast with the intimate stage setting to craft a memorable show with unforgettable characters and stories.
All the components of this show worked. Kudos to Scenic and Costume Designer Margie Jervis. Her spare but interesting set offers a space to create a variety of settings in our imagination and staging options for the directors. Costumes and props are used to good effect to support changing characters. Lighting Designer Christopher Meyer’s designs never took away from the show and were subtle yet effective in supporting the show’s changing times and spaces.
Finally, Music Director and pianist Virginia Rice Sircy and the three musicians (Ken Hall on guitar, Vince Calcaterra, and Eric Sennett on percussion) accompanied the show with skill and finesse. I was a bit worried by the strong drums in the overture but never noticed it again. The foursome easily managed the range of music styles and Sircy’s direction made it seem like there was a much larger orchestra.
Creative Cauldron’s Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is is truly a production for music lovers and I expect this show and its creative team to be in the mix come awards season.
Running Time: One hour and forty minutes, with no intermission.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris plays through October 26, 2014, at Creative Cauldron’s Artspace–410 South Maple Avenue, in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 436-9948, or purchase them online.