Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
A singer-songrwriter's work comes to life at Theatre Project
There was a hint of old Paris at the Baltimore Theatre Project as Factory Edge Theatre Works put on the musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Subtle lighting, candle-lit cabaret seating, and a stage arranged simply with a four-person musical ensemble and a large iron gazebo with vegetation growing around it created an air of romance and serenity. Although it was not a full-house that evening, the audience members who were present appeared to thoroughly enjoy the show.
It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into beforehand though—don't expect a plot. Jacques Brel is based on the music, lyrics, and commentary of the titular singer-songwriter. Brel was born in Belgium but spent much of his life in Paris composing and recording his songs almost exclusively in French during the 1950s and ’60s. He also distinguished himself as an actor and director.
According to a program note from director Lance Bankerd, producer/translator Eric Blau and rock composer Mort Shuman adapted and assembled a number of Brel’s songs into a musical revue, which opened off-Broadway in 1968. It was made into to film in 1975 in which Brel briefly appeared, though he passed away shortly after it debuted. The musical has been revived on several occasions, including a critically lauded 2006 production off-Broadway at the Zipper Theater.
The four person cast of J. Hargrove, Sarah-Ford Gorman, Erika Bankerd, and Lance Bankerd were dressed to the nines, the men in suits and the women in elegant gowns. They entered the stage as couples and were seated at a cabaret table by the same attendant who sat and waited on audience members. The uncredited attendant lent a hand to the cast throughout the performance, filling their glasses and assisting them with various props during the show.
Each of the 26 songs that make up this review is a story of its own. The songs vary in subject and style, and your emotions are taken on a roller-coaster ride as happy, upbeat tunes are juxtaposed next to dramatic ones. The opening song, “Marathon,” is a lively dance number that all four cast members joined in on. It was followed by the much more pensive and solemn “Alone,” in which Hargrove sang about chasing thrills and having power, glory, and fame, yet always coming back to the realization that he’s still alone.
The cast elicitted a good deal of audience involvement as they made their way through songs about war, love, loss, death, classicism, youth, travel, anger, oblivion, hope, and regret. In “The Desperate Ones,” they even entered the audience and sat down, singing to audience members and emphasizing the emotion and desire for connection beneath the words.
Many of Brel’s songs are very serious with dark undertones. “My Death” was introduced by the pianist plucking on the stings of her piano and the guitar and bassist plucking on their strings all the way up to the tuning pegs, creating a strangely eerie sound. The song “Next” is an anti-war number with a message about the realities of conflict that feels all too relevant today.
But there was also some comedic relief. “Girls and Dogs” was a very funny, brutally honest number the guys performed insisting that dogs are a man’s best friend because they are so much easier to please than women. Similarly, “Middle Class” got more than a few laughs as the guys joined together in a drunken melody. “Coming out of hotels which had real class, we showed them our good manners and we showed them our ass,” they sang as they performed a stumbling dance.
The real showstopper was “Carousel.” It stood out because of its upbeat spirit, making the audience recall childhood trips to the carnival with all the cotton candy, spinning rides, and crazy games. The accompanying dance mimicked a carousel as the company spun in circles around the stage.
In all, Factory Edge did a wonderful job bringing a relatively unknown—atleast to modern American audiences—sing-songwriters' work to the stage. And by the end of the performance, the lack of plot was irrelevant because each song was so thoroughly enjoyable on its own.
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