Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Music of Jacques Brel

Kalliope’s ‘THE MUSIC OF JACQUES BREL is enjoyable, but ....

As I sat watching Kalliope Stage’s ‘THE MUSIC OF JACQUES BREL,’ my mind wandered back to the early 1970s when I saw the opening night of Berea Summer Theatre‘s JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS.’ This magical production starred Cliff Bemis, David Frazier, Providence Hollander and Terri Pieto. It was directed by Joe Garry, with musical direction by David Gooding.

In 1973 Garry was approached to bring the musical to the defunct State Theatre in downtown Cleveland. The projected two-week run become so popular that it was performed for the next two-and-a-half-years. It heralded the revival of what is now the Playhouse Square Foundation, the second largest theater facility outside of New York City’s Lincoln Center. Many think, if not for Jacques Brel, the theatres in Playhouse Square would have been bulldozed and the history of Cleveland forever changed.

Brel, contrary to common belief, is Belgian, not French. He made his impact, however, as a French cabaret singer and a commentator on life. His songs are generally about love, death and the struggles that life is, but he also wrote about the ironic nature of existence. He incorporates strong emotional perceptions and creates visual images with meaningful poetic vocabulary.

Instances from the BW/Playhouse Square production stand out. Gary and Gooding’s show flowed seemlessly from song-to-song, creating a unity of life’s highs and lows. Another factor was the quality of the voices and acting of the cast. There were no weak segments in that production. Emotions were felt and clearly displayed. There was no posing nor feigning of feelings. Especially exciting were the renditions of “Carousel” a glorious song about how we are euphorically carried on the merry-go-round of life, and the final selection,“If We Only Have Love,” a tribute to all that is good about living.

Interestingly, as nicely done as Kalliope’s ‘THE MUSIC OF JACQUES BREL’ is, it lacks many of the special components. The cast can sing well, but they generally lack the immersion, the magical qualities that are need to make the show great. They sometimes sing words, not meanings. They sometimes feign emotions.

Director Paul Gurgol’s concept doesn’t meld the songs. There are unnecessary blackouts between many numbers which break the mood.

For some inexplicable reason, Michael Hamilton, the musical arranger and/or Gurgol decided that “Carousel” is a song about getting out of sync with life, that life is frustrating confusion. And, try as they might, “If We Only Have Love,’ fails to explode with emotion and invite us to leave the theatre on an emotional high ready to face whatever the world throws at us.

Yes, this is not the same script. Kalliope’s ‘THE MUSIC OF JACQUES BREL’ and ‘JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS’ are different, but they are still Brel. And, no matter how you slice it or dice it, Brel’s musical sounds, meanings and passions are present. Hamilton’s arrangements often weaken the meaning of the songs. One tune has almost a country sound, several are given farcical interpretations which, though they may be audience pleasing, don’t do justice to Brel. Hamming it up, isn’t Brel. Feigning feeling is not Brel.

This is not to indicate the Kalliope production is bad. It isn’t. The average theatre-goer, as apparently did the majority of the opening night audience, will enjoy the experience. The musical fits into Kalliope’s intimate performance space. The cast, Jodi Brinkman, Joan Ellison, Chaz Statham, Adina Bloom and William Marshall have strong and clear voices. There are some nice moments. There is some good humor. But, there isn’t the consistent greatness of Brel. There is a quality of ordinariness that doesn’t inspire us to understand and appreciate the greatness that is Brel.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Director Paul Gurgol chose to do ‘THE MUSIC OF JACQUES BREL’ rather than ‘JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS,’ because he wanted to put his “own stamp” on the happenings. He did so. He has produced a pleasant, but not totally inspiring theatrical experience.