Sunday, May 26, 2002

Jacques Brel Is Avlie and Well and Living in Paris (Actors' Summit)

'JACQUES BREL' is alive at Actors' Summit

Every once in while a theatre-goer has an experience that makes all future exposures pale by comparison. Sometimes its seeing a single performance: Richard Kiley in 'MAN OF LA MANCHA,' Zero Mostel in 'FIDDLER ON THE ROOF' or Barbara Steisand in 'FUNNY GIRL.' Sometimes it’s a total production that blows the mind, such as the Broadway versions of 'WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF,' 'CHORUS LINE,' or 'WEST SIDE STORY.'

Such an experience was the Cleveland area production of 'JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS' many years ago which started in the little theatre at Berea Summer Theatre, moved to Playhouse Square before the theatres were all renovated, and held the record for the longest continuous run of any production until it was recently eclipsed by 'TONY N’ TINA’S WEDDING.' That show, which starred Cliff Bemis, David Frazier, Providence Hollandar and Terri Pieto and was directed by Joe Garry, with musical direction by David Gooding, was an unmatchable experience. I once heard someone describe that show’s rendition of “If We Only Have Love,” the show’s final selection, as making her “toe nails curl.”

The memory lingers on. It was with that mind set that I attended Actors’ Summit’s production of Jacques Brel. It doesn’t match up. This is not to say that the present production is bad, it’s not. It is quite enjoyable as evidenced by the extended applause at the curtain call. It’s just that this rendition does not have the emotional depth, the perfect blending of voices, the seamlessly smooth staging, and the full musical sound of Cleveland’s classic production.

'JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS' is not the typical musical review. The cast can’t just sing, dance, and go on to the next song. Jacques Brel was a poet and singer. But, most of all, he was a song writer whose creations each told a story with a beginning, middle and end. He told tales of life, death, relationships, war, class struggle, loneliness and love.

In presenting Brel’s work each piece stands alone. Each piece has an attitude, a tone, a purposefulness. It is here that the Actors’ Summit proeduction lacks. Songs are sung. Most are not experienced by the performers and, therefore, not experienced totally by the audience.

The strongest renditions are “Fanette” powerfully sung by Scott Plate, “Next” by Plate and the ensemble, and “Carousel” by Sally Groth and the ensemble, though the necessary emotional enchantment in the latter was somewhat missing. There are special touches in this show. In “The Girls and the Dogs,” Plate and Wayne Turney are accompanied on stage by two adorable and well-trained dogs who beg, heel and exit on cue. Turney has a wonderful time in “Funeral Tango.”

The cast gives their all. Plate has a big voice, which sometimes causes problems as the other voices are much more subtle and he sometimes drowns out the other performers. Sally Groth sings well, but is somewhat shallow in the upper registers, especially in the song, “Alone.” MaryJo Alexander has a pleasant if not commanding sound. Turney does best in songs where he can clown.

Capsule judgement: All in all, 'JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS' at Actors’ Summit is a serviceable show that audience members should enjoy. And, obviously they have, and have spread the word , as the show has been extended for another three weeks.