JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL
AND LIVING IN PARIS at the Odyssey
One of the most surefooted ways to grab an audience and hold it to your heart is to sing anything written by Jacques Brel, the Belgium-born and Paris-bred folk singer/poet and master of the modern chanson, whose brief but fiery non-conformistic life tragically ended in 1978 at the way too early age of 49.
Although Brel’s following was at first mostly French and European, as he recorded most of his songs in French and occasionally Dutch, he became a major influence on English-speaking songwriters and performers from David Bowie to Marc Almond to Rod McKuen, and English translations of his songs were recorded over the years by Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, Nina Simone, and Frank Sinatra, among many other devotees.
It was 1968, inspired by the worldwide success of Damita Jo's “If You Go Away,” translated from Brel’s gossamer ballad “Ne me quitte pas,” that the classic revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. With lyrics translated by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, the production conceived by Shuman and featuring a 25-song cycle of Brel’s songs performed by two men and two women, the incredibly successful revue ran there over four years and, simply, has since been remounted in virtually every major city in the world.
I have personally seen Jacques Brel Is… done about 20 times in my life, from large theatre complexes to intimate nightclub venues to converted ice skating rinks to once aboard a cruise ship headed to Mexico. The music is nothing short of amazing and Brel’s signature insight, political jabs, razor-sharp wit, and that thinly-veiled inherent optimism he tried so hard to disguise, makes it timeless despite a lack of the usual plotline afforded the standard book musical.
There’s a teflon quality to any production of Jacques Brel Is…, something exhibited by the current version just opening at the Odyssey Theatre directed by Dan Fishbach. In many ways, Fishbach’s starkly simple vision is impressively bare-boned, with the musicians playing live at the rear of the Vegas lounge-y set by Alex Kolmanovsky made up of large ascending gray platforms, and featuring piercing lighting by William Adashek and complimentarily monochromatic costuming by Denise Blasor to match.
The production serves as proof that the haunting lyricism of Brel’s music and the insightful nature of his poetry can make his classic revue survive just about anything--and even eventually inspire Fishbach’s obviously less accomplished, initially less magnetic cast to eventually soar to unexpected heights.
Marc Francoeur as Man 1, the brash and whimsical role Shuman created for himself, never quite seems comfortable with the exaggerated and in-your-face style of the piece, although vocally he gathers confidence as the evening progresses. Hopefully, as the run continues and grows into itself, so will his work.
On the other hand, Michael Yapujian has a better handle on the vocals but physically, though clearly confident, it’s hard to grasp what he’s doing besides performing in his own disconnected one-man show. There’s not much heroic about his usually heroic Man 2, clearly the show’s Brel substitute, as Yapujian appears more to be trying to go for Woody Allen playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors than honoring the more sophisticated Brel.
The women fare far better. Although musical director Anthony Lucca should try to temper Miyuki Miyagi’s vocals in group numbers so it doesn’t blatantly overpower her costars, in her solo turns she has a beautiful and richly resonant voice. She is especially impressive as she sweetly interprets the triple-waltz-timed “Timid Frieda,” with castmate Susan Kohler pantomiming our anti-heroine as she arrives with her valises held so tightly in her hands. This is one of the most memorable songs to pay devotional homage to Brel’s evocative lyrics (“Will life seize her? / On the street where the new dreams gather / Like fearless robins, joined together / In high-flying bands”) and Miyagi knocks it right out onto Sepulveda Boulevard.
It is Kohler, however, a little bit Piaf, a little bit Judy Collins, a little bit Barbara Cook, and even a little bit Julie Harris, who is the quintessential interpreter of Brel’s songs here, someone with a uniquely expressive if not perfect voice who overcomes that assessment instantly with her unique ability to tell the master’s story with style and a phrasing that’s notably individual to her. Her gorgeously poignant “I Loved,” containing the one Brel lyric I find myself conjuring often over the course of my last four-and-a-half years (“You loved me like a poet loves / My nights were made of stars and fears”), is the highlight of the evening—at least the part of the evening we were allowed to experience.
About halfway through Act Two, in the middle of Kohler’s beautifully redolent French-sung “Marieke,” our blazing El Lay summer, such a testament to the ominous fact that global warming is real and our President is full of shit in this and so many other ways, hit the Odyssey bigtime, zapping off the power in the entire complex and leaving us—no, the entire neighborhood—lost in complete darkness.
As management entered the theatre to tell us all to hold tight, as they were gathering flashlights to escort us all from the place, the cast was bombarded with fervent pleas to continue. As they stood like sentries on the blackened stage, the lack of air-conditioning quickly becoming an issue, the committed quartet came together as an ensemble as they had yet to accomplish to that point. They clasped arms after helping one another down from Kolmanovsky’s challenging levels of steep platforming, joining together before us to continue the show in the glow of their grateful audience members’ flickering cellphone lights.
As they soldiered on valiantly in the dark, the house manager returned to say they had decided the show must not go on any farther, but still they did not stop. At a shouted request from a knowledgeable audience member to “At least sing ‘If We Only Have Love,’ the show’s knockout final number and Brel’s sweeping anthem to the redemptive glories of love, and with the complete agreement from musical director Lucca seated in the dark behind at his magical keyboard, Francoeur, Kohler, Miyagi, and Yapujian transformed into relaxed and committed superstars, offering the most beautiful and the most heartfelt rendition of the song I have ever heard
There in the darkness they stood before us, heads held high in the collective glow of all those wavering iPhones and sang:
If we only have love / Then tomorrow will dawn
And the days of our years / Will rise on that morn
If we only have love / To embrace without fears
We will kiss with our eyes / We will sleep without tears
If we only have love / With our arms open wide
Then the young and the old / Will stand at our side
If we only have love / Love that's falling like rain
Then the parched desert earth / Will grow green again
If we only have love / For the hymn that we shout
For the song that we sing / Then we'll have a way out
If we only have love / We can reach those in pain
We can heal all our wounds / We can use our own names
If we only have love / We can melt all the guns
And then give the new world / To our daughters and sons
If we only have love / Then Jerusalem stands
And then death has no shadow / There are no foreign lands
If we only have love / We will never bow down
We'll be tall as the pines / Neither heroes nor clowns
If we only have love / Then we'll only be men
And we'll drink from the Grail / To be born once again
Then with nothing at all / But the little we are
We'll have conquered all time / All space, the sun, and the stars.
“This is a performance I will never forget,” quipped Miyagi in the darkness and there, folks, is where this cast, still struggling to find their Brel-ian sea-legs before their minor crisis hit, miraculously came together and brought forth all the stuff they had to give all along, all the stuff that had yet to be mined as an ensemble before the lights went out. There they were, linked with all of us in that sweltering room—and with everyone grasping for understanding in this troubled world—discovering, as Brel told us we must 40 years ago, that the only way to face pain and uncertainty as everything we hold dear crashes around us is fearlessly and together.
Bet my bottom dollar the Odyssey’s remount of the timeless Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, after last Saturday’s unforgettable performance, is now just about perfect.