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BWW Reviews: 5th Ave and ACT's JACQUES BREL Delivers Edgy Beauty

Cayman Ilika (center) with Louis Hobson (left)
and Eric Ankrim (right) in
Jacques Brel is Alive and Wel & Living in Paris
Photo credit: Tracy Martin

Even Musical Theater nerds such as myself might not be familiar with "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well & Living in Paris", currently performing at ACT in a joint production with ACT and the 5th Avenue Theatre. I, myself, admit only a passing familiarity with the work and mostly from the covers that others have done of some of his songs. But now that I've seen it done I can understand the cultish following the show engenders and thankfully it was this production that filled the gap in my Musical Theater knowledge as this incredible ensemble took every angst ridden note and made them soar.

As I was entering the theater, some friends who knew the show jokingly warned me that there was no underlying story to this revue (referencing my comments of the lack of a cohesive story in recent reviews). But I have to say that those jibes were wrong as with Brel's work you have a lot of little stories as each song takes the listener down one path only to hit you with a much deeper message later. Yes, the songs get somewhat bleak and dark at times but never without meaning and always transcending into a dark and edgy beauty. And this revue captures the work of this tortured artist, who may be unknown to American audiences, brilliantly. The fame of this Belgian artist was mostly in Europe in the 50's, 60's and 70's but covers of his songs (translated into English of course) became hits for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins and Nina Simone.

Director David Armstrong along with Associate Director and Choreographer Chryssie Whitehead have taken these gorgeous pieces and staged them in such a way that they go beyond a simple "park and bark" of a standard revue. They've infused such life and story into each number that even the un-translated song of the show "Ne Me Quitte Pas" brings a ton of emotional baggage with it. In fact it was one of the most stirring moments of the evening due in no small part to the wonderful lighting and projections from Tom Sturge and Tristan Roberson not to mention the haunting lone guitar from Greg Fulton accompanying the singer.

And speaking of the singers, a finer ensemble they could not have assembled but what do you expect when you get some of the finest performers who have repeatedly graced the stages of the 5th Avenue and Village Theatre. Eric Ankrim, Louis Hobson (who will be replaced by Matt Owen on April 14th), Cayman Ilika, Kendra Kassebaum and Timothy McCuen Piggee turned in near flawless performances and owned every inch of that stage. Each one managed to take their moments to shine in their solos and still kept a tight ensemble in the group numbers. Hobson managed a hilarious lothario one minute and a tragic soldier the next. Piggee's wonderful ode to his own funeral was funny and touching. Ankrim kept the comedy rolling in songs such as "Next" only to pull the rug out in the same song revealing a truly vulnerable moment. But it was the ladies who really blew me away. Ilika's haunting "Timid Frieda" as well as "Sons Of ..." showed off what a stunning singer and actor she is. And Kassebaum brought the house down with the aforementioned "Ne Me Quitte Pas" only to do it again with the manic "Carousel".

Basically this was a complete winner of a somewhat unknown show and a killer evening. Which is why they're getting a solid YAY from my three letter rating system. Musical Theater nerds unfamiliar with this one should definitely catch it, or even those who are familiar and want a superb rendition. As for you non-nerds, just prepare yourselves for a somewhat bleak yet hauntingly beautiful evening.

"Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well & Living in Paris" from the 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT performs at ACT through May 17th. For tickets or information visit them online at or

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