Jacques Brel Returns & Wild Animals You Should Know

by Michael Dale

Jacques Brel is dead and buried and entombed in French Polynesia and the Zipper Theatre, home of the very satisfying revival of Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris several seasons back is now a beloved memory, but the producers of that mounting have been keeping the 'ol carousel madly turning for nearly a year now with regular presentations of Jacques Brel Returns, up at The Triad.

This is a condensed version of the show, featuring a revolving cast made up primarily of veterans of that Zipper production, but presented on a smaller cabaret space that wouldn't hold director Gordon Greenberg's staging, so the selections, mostly solos, are generally sung downstage center directly out at the audience, with music director Rick Hip-Flores at piano.

The Belgian-born Brel first gained international attention in 1957 with "Quand on a que l'amour" ("If We Only Have Love") and, until his death in 1978, earned great acclaim for composing both captivating melodies and catchy tunes with story-telling lyrics that poetically expounded on love, life, war and class.  The original Jacques Brel..., a long-running revue of his songs with English translations by Americans Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, opened in 1968 at the historic Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which is now a CVS Pharmacy. (Thank you, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.)

His material requires strong acting and character work from its vocalists and on the evening I attended the 4-member company included two outstanding actor/singers, Robert Cuccioli and Natascia Diaz.

Though Cuccioli is best known for his Tony-nominated turn playing the title characters in Jekyll & Hyde, Brel offers comic and dramatic musical scenes far worthier of his talents.  He's hilarious in "Jackie", appearing as a disillusioned straight-lace longing for a taste of the trashier side of life, and "Girls and Dogs," singing mock-poetics in tribute to canine unconditional love. He can move you to tears with "Song For Old Lovers," dance a jaunty lick in "Funeral Tango" and roar with dramatic abandon in "Amsterdam," giving the first act a breathless button.

Like Cuccioli, Diaz was a member of the original Zipper cast, but she was regulated to more youthful material while chanteuse Gay Marshall was given the dramatic highlights.  On this night, though, Diaz's entrancingly smoky voice and bearing of emotionally tattered elegance tore through the painful pleas of "Marieke" and embraced "Ne Me Quitte Pas" with fragile stillness.  Her sardonic take on "The Bulls," about Sunday matadors and the women who cheer them on, displayed some dandy comic chops and her loving rendition of "The Old Folks" was warm and tender.

Broadway vet Jim Stanek took on the younger male roles, giving a zippy neurotic energy to "Madeleine," the catchy tune about a fellow who keeps optimistic while being perpetually stood up, playing "The Statue," where a dead soldier mocks those who visit his memorial, for its dark comic anger and effectively reliving the nightmare of a virgin soldier having his first sexual experience in an army whorehouse in "Next."  Young Ereni Sevasti displays a strong belt and expressive phrasing in selections like "My Childhood" and "My Death," and a charming nerdiness as "Timid Frieda."

Jacques Brel Returns does not play a regular schedule, so check The Triad's web site for dates and casts.

Photo: Robert Cuccioli.

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The age limit for being a member of the Boy Scouts of America is 18 years and if Jay Armstrong Johnson and Gideon Glick looked reasonably close to that age, or if their roles were recast and written as characters that were closer to, perhaps, 16, Thomas Higgins' Wild Animals You Should Know might exude more much needed seriously-minded tension.  Instead the play tends to teeter between stale melodrama and homoerotic silliness.

As the evening begins, Johnson's buff and blonde Matthew is performing a web cam strip tease for Glick's nerdy and awkward Jacob; perhaps as a returned favor because, as we later learn, Jacob is really good at doing something that Matthew's girlfriend won't do.

As each remains in his bedroom in their suburban homes, Matthew tells Jacob that he can see out his window into a nearby house where their scoutmaster, Rodney (John Behlmann), is staring at him and then kissing another man; a sight that inspires him to set out to expose the guy by claiming inappropriate behavior on an upcoming camping trip.  (Since the state where the play takes place is never specified, it's not clear if Rodney could be accused of attempting statutory rape of a minor, and, if Matthew is the age of consent, the issue of if his alleged actions could constitute sexual harassment is never put into play.)  Matthew's twisted reason for exposing Rodney as gay would have been more effective if Higgins had revealed it from the start instead of saving it for a late discovery, but, despite the Boy Scouts' reputation for homo-intolerance, the conceit doesn't ring true since Jacob seems to be an accepted member of the organization while being openly gay.

Meanwhile, Matthew's mom (Alice Ripley in a small role) is pushing her husband (Patrick Breen) - fighting thoughts of inadequacy for being unemployed - to get more involved with their son's activities, resulting in his chaperoning of the weekend campout along with the beer guzzling Larry (Daniel Stewart Sherman).  A father and son confrontation results in the two characters actually roaring at each other in an embarrassing display of symbolism.

Director Tripp Cullman does his usual quality work with a very good ensemble, but there's little of interest for them to play and what might have been a dark drama of sexual predation turns out to be a big tease.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Jay Armstrong Johnson, John Behlmann, and Gideon Glick; Bottom: Patrick Breen and Alice Ripley.

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After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.