Darien Arts Center Stage is a community theatre dedicated to providing excellence in entertainment through plays, musicals, cabarets, and special events. Their Weatherstone Studio has recently played host to a production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Flawlessly directed by Peter Green, with musical direction by Keith Levenson and choreography by Karla Diamond, the timeless songs, intimate theater setting, simple set pieces, inspired costumes and brilliant Broadway-caliber cast combined for an entertaining and memorable evening. I felt privileged to be able to attend such a perfect production.

Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer-songwriter who became popular in the United States in the 1960's. His songs have been covered by an international roster of recording artists including David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, John Denver, Tom Jones and more. His works have been so popular that a musical revue was produced in 1968 by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, which ran for over 4 years in Greenwich Village and has seen many theater productions and revivals since.

While I don't usually care for revues, Brel's songs lend themselves to a full-blown theater production. With musical themes ranging from carnivals and carousels, to silent movies, love songs, and anthems, each number tells an unflinching story about life, love, innocence, war, and peace. There is a distinct anti-war theme throughout the show, and most of the songs have a fatalistic undercurrent of a sense of loss, yet they still inspire a hope that humanity that can rise above its basic instincts and truly love.

To get the true feel for a Parisian Cafe, the Arts Center used unreserved cabaret style seating, with open bars in the theater. The set was floor level, with one small raised section and had a nightclub palette of black and red. Throughout the show, period black and white photos were projected on the backdrop. The effect was quite stunning, especially when combined with the costumes in the same palette.

There were seven cast members in this show, where the original production had only four. But each member was unique in how their personalities and presence filled their roles and particular songs. Whether vamping for the audience, singing like children, drunken buffoons, or aged Parisians, each performer was a delight.

Danielle Valdes shone in the song "My Childhood" and when she sang "Song for Old Lovers" in both English and French. Broadway veteran and youngest cast member Nicholas Barasch (Anna Nicole: The Opera, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and West Side Story), evoked a sense of youthful innocence and wide-eyed curiosity for life in "My Childhood," the "Bachelor's Dance" and "Timid Frieda." Larry Reina took the lead in the comedic songs, "Mathilde" and "Funeral Tango" and as the increasingly drunken man singing about the "Middle Class" with his compatriots played by Nicholas Barasch and director Peter Green. Peter Green also led the songs "Amsterdam" about desperate sailors in a port bar, and "Next," a song decrying both the loss of innocence and the treatment of men in the military.

Another anti-war song, "Sons Of" was emotionally and hauntingly presented by Lisa Spielman, as was the song, "You're Not Alone" where she plaintively tried to comfort a friend. Julie Thaxter-Gourlay was another comedienne of the group, presenting lost innocence and defiant naughtiness in "Timid Frieda" and a nostalgic look back at pre-war "Brussels."

My favorite song of the evening, "Marieke," was sung in both English and Flemish by Betsy Simpson. Her emotional delivery brought tears to my eyes as she sang of lost love. It is a testament to the power of Brel's songs that even though I did not understand the words, his music has the power to touch emotions that are universal in us all. Ms. Simpson's performance of the song was a real showstopper, and had I not been in a crowded theater, I'm sure that many more tears would have been shed unchecked.

The show ended with the triumphant and hopeful anthem, "If We Only Had Love." The soaring and inspired music was the perfect ending to this perfect production.

Sadly, the show ran for only two weekends. I hope that Darien Arts Center will bring the show back at a later date, but in the meantime, I look forward to future productions and shows at his innovative new theater. For more information, visit Darien Arts Center.

Photo: Cast members are (l. to r.) Peter Green, Betsy Simpson, Danielle Valdes, Nicholas Barasch, Lisa Spielman, Julie Thaxter-Gourlay, and Larry Reina. Photo Credit: Jeffrey R. Wyant

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From This Author Cindy Cardozo

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