BWW Review: JACQUES BREL Comes Alive at Gloucester Stage Company
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Production Conception, English Lyrics, and Additional Material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, Based on Jacques Brel's Lyrics and Commentary; Music by Jacques Brel, Directed by Eric Engel, Musical Direction by David McGrory; Set and Costume Design, Props Master, Ryan Bates; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith
Featuring: Shana Dirik, Jennifer Ellis, Douglas Jabara, Daniel Robert Sullivan Musicians: Piano, David McGrory; Electric Guitar, Steve Lacey; Bass, Kate Foss; Percussion, Don Holm
Performances through July 6 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
The thing about good music is that it stands the test of time, and the thing about good theater companies is that they get to celebrate their 35th Anniversary Season by revisiting one of their most requested productions. Last presented by the Gloucester Stage Company in 2003, the internationally acclaimed musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris marks the unofficial start of summer at the refurbished Gorton Theater with a quartet of polished actor-singers under the direction of Artistic Director Eric C. Engel and Music Director David McGrory.
The all-Equity cast features 2012 IRNE Award-winner (for The Most Happy Fella) Jennifer Ellis, three-time GSC veteran Daniel Robert Sullivan, and Shana Dirik and Douglas Jabara in their local debuts. Song after song, whether performing as solo, duo, or full company, the foursome reveals the heart and soul in Brel's music and the brilliant complexity of the late Belgian's lyrics, albeit translated into English by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. The latter pair conceived the original production which premiered off-Broadway in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1968 and ran for almost five years, but it has lived on in various media for nearly five decades.
Unless you happened to see the show at an earlier time or own the original cast recording as I do (on vinyl!), you may think that you don't know Brel's compositions. However, there are at least a few that should sound familiar, among them "Ne Me Quitte Pas" ("Don't Leave Me"), "Carousel," and "If We Only Have Love." Even if you're hearing them for the first time, you might be tempted to sing along and you're likely to walk out of the theater with at least one tune replaying in your head. Brel's music has a haunting quality and it is well-played by McGrory (piano), Steve Lacey (electric guitar), Kate Foss (bass), and Don Holm (percussion) on their upstage perch.
The songs feel like mini-plays acted, as well as sung, by the ensemble. In "My Childhood," Ellis reminisces wistfully, at first, then grows angry and displays revulsion at the horrors of war. Daniel's boyish playfulness is well-suited to "Bachelor's Dance" and "Jackie," and he captures the cold, unfeeling reality of visiting a prostitute for the first time as a young man in the service. In an achingly sad duet with Ellis, Jabara pleads for his lover not to go ("Ne Me Quitte Pas"), but regains his composure to go on the attack in "Amsterdam." Dirik builds the momentum in the oompah-pah rhythm in "Sons of," before she blows the roof off in "Marieke," arguably one of the most emotionally powerful numbers in the show despite the foreign lyrics.
As a group, the four have chemistry and blend nicely in harmony. It was hard to discern the words in the opener "Marathon," but not for lack of volume or enunciation. They put a lot of zip into the lively "Madeleine" and "Brussels," and go to the opposite emotional extreme in "The Desperate Ones." Ellis takes the lead in "Carousel," but the Company joins in and the fun turns to frenzy as they get all wrapped up in long red swaths of silk. As in a handful of other numbers, the production overreaches, taking some of the focus away from the song. Jacques Brel's music and lyrics are beautiful and compelling and these four have the vocal chops to deliver them. Their glory shines in the simplest staging, best illustrated by the uplifting anthem "If We Only Have Love" that closes the show. Two women and two men stand firmly in the center of the rainbow-tinted planks of the stage and proclaim Brel's words of hope, optimism, and the power of love.
Photo credit: Gary Ng (Daniel Robert Sullivan, Shana Dirik, Douglas Jabara, Jennifer Ellis)