Review-'Jacques Brel IS Alive and Well and Living in Olney
I must first make an admission. I'm a huge fan of this musical and saw it's initial Off-Broadway production which opened at the Village Gate in 1968 and continued for five years. I've seen it numerous times including a wonderful recent production at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre in 2004.
So, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect when I noticed that the Olney Theatre Center had it lined up for this summer. I'd heard about a terrific award-winning production there from 1995. So why do it again?
It was ONLY after I saw the show that I really noticed the cover of the program which lists the entire Olney summer season under the auspices of the Potomac Theatre Festival, The Ninth Annual Festival of Political Theater. Now I understand why Director Jim Petosa decided to give it another whirl because this show is FULL of politics.
Brel was a prolific composer of songs about life, love, tragedy, exploitation, lust, betrayal, loneliness. He writes about Brussels, Amsterdam, bull-fighting, sailors, whorehouses, the elderly and war. He died of lung cancer in 1978.
Lyricist Mort Shuman became a huge fan of Brel after a visit to Paris. Shuman wrote lyrics for Elvis Pressley ("Viva Las Vegas"), and the Drifters. Songs we all remember like "This Magic Moment", and "Save the Last Dance for Me". So Shuman and poet, Eric Blau translated about twenty-three songs and helped conceive "Jacques Brel", what may very well be the first "juke-box musical (a compilation of songs from one composer). Shuman also included himself in the cast along with Elly Stone, Alice Whitfield, and the great Shawn Elliott ("City of Angels" and the husband of Donna Murphy).
Petosa commented about his philosphy of the show. "There will be a very Brechtian aspect to the production in the sense of its obvious releation to the world today...it will be, in many ways, a theatricized music video with Brechtian political undertones. It will very much have a rock concert feel."
When you walk into the theater you hear pipped in French chatter and you see on stage left a huge reproduction of the Eiffel Tower. Well....not the whole tower, just the base. On stage right, a huge replica of the rose window from Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral that moves on a track from one side of the stage to the other. James Kronzer has done a masterful job as set designer.
Normally, the cast of "Jacques Brel" is comprised of two men and two women and performed in a cabaret setting. But here, to start the show, Petosa has the EIGHT actors, climb via three ladders from the orchestra pit as if they are rising from the sewars of Paris. A great effect.
The center of the stage is a frame which is skillfully utilized as a projection screen to flash images as Brassai paintings, historical figures, photos of Paris, and carnage from battle fields.
The very first number sung by the ensemble is "Marathon". I wouldn't be surprised if Billy Joel got the idea for his "We Didn't Start the Fire" from the lyrics which I can recall thanks to a great web site, www.lyricskeeper.com. The song starts during the roaring twenties and you see the projections match the lyrics.... Charles A. Lindberg, Dempsey-Tunney, Sacco and Vanzetti, Black Monday. Then the Thirties arrive with Orphan Annie, Daddy Warbucks, breadlines, shanty towns, Adolf Hitler, Siegfield Follies, Joseph Stalin. The Forties Burn with Auchwitz and the Manhatten Project followed by the Fifties, Sixties, etc. Brel wrote much about war. Brel's generation grew up reflecting on World War II. When the show opened in 1968, Vietnam was the topic of the day. The production later brings the show current with references to Baghdad and Iran!
The ensemble assembled by Petosa is top notch. At the very last minute, just prior to rehearsals, he was still in need of two actors. So he shlepped to New York and hit gold with Matt Bailey, playing a James Dean, leather-jacketed rebel without a cause, and J.D. Goldblatt who plays a sailor. Many of you may recall Goldblatt from his terrific portrayal of Daniel in the Center Stage production of "Once on This Island" last December. He was featured in Atlanta's ALLIANCE THEATRE production of "Jelly's Last Jam" and just recently was cast in the upcoming new Broadway production of another show that was originally in French, "Les Miserables", playing the role of Montparnasse. I may have to return to "Les Mis" one more time. Goldblatt's rendition of "Amersterdam" sent shivers up my spine. What a voice!
Four of the actors return from the 1995 version. Valerie Leonard, Carolyn Pasquantonia, Christopher Yates, and DevRon Young. Young spends most of the evening as an observer. He's dressed as a contemporary of Charlie Chaplin, and his character in some ways reminded me of Ben Vereen's Leading Player in "Pippin". Yet, he does not get his solo until the end of Act II and it is worth waiting for. He leads the beautiful anthem "If We Only Have Love". A stirring memorable song.
I remembered Channez McQuay from her performances in the wonderful Fells Point Corner Theatre production of "Parade", and her chilling role in the Signature's masterpiece "Nevermore". McQuay informed me that preparations are in the works for a recording of this world premiere musical. Here, she shines singing in Dutch "Marieke". She is terrific. I did had a hard time understanding the lyrics to Nicole Adams' presentation at the end of Act I, "Sons Of".
There are so many great moments in this show. During the "Bachelor's Dance", the four males sing clinging to the Eiffel Tower to their women down below. "Jackie" has a surprising great bossa nova rhythm. And speaking of music, the small pit band does a great job under the direction of Christopher Youstra but I do wish that if budgets weren't such a serious issue, some woodwinds and brass would have added a great touch.
There's the clever use of lace umbrullas during 'The Desparate Ones" where the homeless "disappear one by one, without a sound, the desparate ones."
It was "The Bulls" that added contemporary lyrics to include Tehran and Baghdad.
Memories of departed parents, the elderly in general ring true during the haunting "Old Folks".
About the technical aspects, the lighting by Daniel MacLean Wagner is stunning and the two follow spot operators on each side of the stage deserve a raise. They never made a mistake.
Costume designer Sekula Sinadinovski works wonders with her inventive wardrobes.
The sound by Matthew M. Nielson is first rate and the choregraphy by Gabriel Orcha is terrific. She has a great future.
I have read that "Jaques Brel" is one the three longest Off-Broadway musicals in history. The material is responsible for that. But what Petosa has done at Olney...well, I don't care how many times you have seen "JB", do NOT miss this incredible production.
I recommend the CD of the 1978 production. A film was made of the musical in 1975 and is available on DVD. Brel is in the film.
You have until July 30 when the curtain comes down. For tickets call 301-924-3400 or www.olneytheatre.org.
For comments, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Restaurant suggestion: Before seeing Brel, why not visit the Belgian bistro in Olney, the Mannequin Pis, have some moulles and frites with a Stella Artois. 301-570-4800, www.mannequinpis.com.Photo by Stan Barouh
Back row: Devron T. Young, Valerie Leonard, Christopher Yates; Middle row: Channez McQuay, J.D. Goldblatt, Nicole Adams; Front row: Matt Bailey, Carolyn Pasquantonio all as Ensemble