BWW Reviews: Light, Fluffy and Camp FRANÇOISE HARDY & BREL, SO ALIVE, SO WELL! Lights Up the Rosebank
The definition of cabaret is as almost wide as the number of cabarets that premiere on stages around the world each year. Since its origins in the 1880s, cabaret has been a refuge for bohemians, new artists, variety acts and socio-political activists. Taking itself more seriously than its burlesque stepmother and more intimate than its vaudevillian cousin, cabaret embraces both the solemn and the satirical, often with purposeful intent but sometimes just for the sheer entertainment of it all. FRANÇOISE HARDY & BREL, SO ALIVE, SO WELL! locates itself within the tradition of popular entertainment in cabaret, an unassuming compilation of songs made famous by Françoise Hardy and Jacques Brel, threaded together by the slightest suggestion of a narrative concept in which the two meet in a Parisian cabaret club in the early 1960s.
FRANÇOISE HARDY & BREL, SO ALIVE, SO WELL! opens with American club owner Joe Cottonfield welcoming the in-crowd to his haunt, Café L'amour, telling us we can expect a grand evening of entertainment. After a brief appearance by his in-house pianist, Joe is left alone on stage without an act to present to the audience. Françoise Hardy - depicted here as an assertive and witty unknown, which contrasts the real life figure's famously shy persona - talks her way up onto the stage to sing some of the songs that she performs as a busker outside the Paris Métro. Later on in the evening, she is joined by Jacques Brel, who brings a few of his classic chansons to the table. The songs are linked by frivolous exchanges between whichever two characters happen to be onstage at the time or by Joe schmoozing with the audience as the emcee of Café L'amour. If you sit in the front rows, expect a few laid back exchanges to come your way.
Set in 1961, the piece seems curiously divorced from any detailed specifics when it comes to the era, settling for a sort of melange of popular culture references from the start of that decade, with several of the songs used in the show only having been released later in that decade. Although the setting of the piece is obviously only intended to be a camp framework to facilitate the performance of some of Hardy and Brel's greatest hits, a more meticulous approach to crafting the context against which the show is plays out would not have been inappropriate and might have made the experience more immersive for audiences who are particularly familiar with the period and the material.
Françoise Hardy (as well as the pianist who briefly appears at the top of the show) is played by Cat Simoni, who is spellbinding whether she is singing wistful songs like "Find Me a Boy" or the more robustly joyful "Only You Can Do It". Sometimes accompanying herself on the piano or guitar, she is a consummate talent. Opposite Simoni as Brel (and club owner, Joe), Paul Spence works his way through some of Brel's greatest hits, like "Mathilde", "The Bulls" and "Amsterdam", while also doubling as the writer and director of the show. Less a singer than an actor, his delivery of the songs is in a sprechstimme style, which suits the material well and reflects Brel's approach to his material as fully embodied interpretations of his material, even if there is a greater sense of musicality in the original artist's performances of his own work.
The range of material in FRANÇOISE HARDY & BREL, SO ALIVE, SO WELL! is fairly wide with Hardy's "All Over the World" and her cover version of "Catch a Falling Star" landing well in the hands of Simoni, while Brel is amply represented by "Madeline", "Timid Frieda", "Carousel" and several others. What is missing from the show is what should have been an inevitable mash-up of Brel and Hardy's songs, the ultimate intersection of these two iconic singer-songwriters' work. "If We Only Have Love" and "The Way of Love" might have been a good possibility for such a medley, although there must be many options given the output of both artists.
Not all of the material included in FRANÇOISE HARDY & BREL, SO ALIVE, SO WELL! fits. The brief throwaway performance of "Alone", with Spence painfully picking out a pair of notes on the piano should be dispensed with post-haste, and the inclusion of "As Time Goes By" and "The Windmills of Your Mind" feel a little out of place, despite clear attempts at justifying their inclusion through the club framework that defines the show's structure. While both were favourites with the audience, they represent an artistic compromise, one that rears its head too often in cabaret work, where the flexibility of the genre allows for songs to be incorporated very loosely into the fabric of a show.
The stage is dressed with colourful drapes, lamps, feather boas and other typically cabaret style paraphernalia. The presence of the Apple Mac and monitor onstage was distracting, as was the constant adjusting of levels on the monitor, which could possibly have been worked into the "act" if it were an absolute necessity for the equipment to be operated from the stage. FRANÇOISE HARDY & BREL, SO ALIVE, SO WELL! may be a low key, small scale cabaret, but that does not mean it cannot have a more carefully considered and executed design. Indeed, the piece could use some tightening and polishing on the whole and requires a firmer directorial hand to pull everything together.
FRANÇOISE HARDY & BREL, SO ALIVE, SO WELL! is a great idea for a meditation on two of France's greatest musical exports. Such an exploration could be taken in two directions, one which is light, fluffy and camp and another which is dark, profound and introspective. This show chooses the former option and, even if it does not fully capture the complexity of Hardy and Brel's work, the result makes for a light-hearted evening at the Rosebank Theatre, a venue on Cape Town's fringe circuit that really does capture one's heart a little more deeply with each visit.
FRANÇOISE HARDY & BREL, SO ALIVE, SO WELL! will be performed on Tuesdays - Saturdays at 8pm until 9 August at the Rosebank Theatre (which is situated at 16 Alma Road, Rosebank in Cape Town, on the Liesbeek Parkway side of the railway line). There will be a matinee on Saturdays at 3pm. Tickets, costing R120, with a R60 concession for students as well as for the pensioners' matinee performance) can be booked at Webtickets (www.webtickets.co.za) or by calling 074 101 5066.