Friday, June 20, 2014

Jacques Brel is alive and well, but is his spirit?

The talented cast of Jacques Brel at Gloucester Stage. Photo: Gary Ng.

When Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris debuted at the Village Gate in 1968, its  title had an unspoken political resonance: for not only the Belgian troubadour, but also the spirit of the left so dear to his heart, seemed alive and well in Paris at the time: the Socialists had just united with the Communists to overthrow de Gaulle, and a wave of demonstrations, occupations and happenings soon culminated in the famous May "Events" that brought working France to a virtual halt.

But the idyll of liberation didn't last long; by July, after a symbolic sojourn in Germany, de Gaulle had returned to power. Meanwhile, in America, as race drove a wedge between the left and the working class, the collapse of the progressive movement was almost as abrupt - and far more violent.

So you could argue that Brel was in some ways a nostalgia piece from nearly its beginning - a kind of call-to-arms that was really a requiem for a pipe dream.  But today, almost fifty years on, this tough-minded little revue plays as so oblique to the culture that it's hard to read it even as nostalgia. Indeed, my guess is Brel himself would puzzle many a millennial, as he was not only politically and historically engaged, but romantically disappointed and dis-empowered - in fact his persona reads as utterly opposed to both the beaming pop queen of today as well as her mirror image, the self-pitying, "goth" loner.

For in the end, Brel was a realist; and in the millennium, we are all different brands of fantasists. Which may be why his oeuvre seems to echo from another era - maybe another universe - even though it should seem utterly up-to-the-minute: indeed, his acid promises about the cyclical nature of war, and the exploitive underside of all politics, seem about to come true all over again in the Ukraine and Middle East.

But okay - I can almost hear you muttering - what about the show?  Well, Gloucester Stage has developed a reputation for punching far above its weight in the musical theatre category, and this iteration of Brel (which runs through July 6) carries on in that muscular tradition.  You could argue that you don't really need great singers to put over these lyric-driven chansons (Brel himself was more a personality than a musical virtuoso), but Gloucester has fielded four of our best local vocalists anyhow: Shana Dirik, Jennifer Ellis, Doug Jabara, and Daniel Robert Sullivan share the honors here, and all four are more than up to the task.  (And they're backed by an exemplary band that teases a whole palette of color from Brel's simple musical figures.)

Still, you could tell that the Gloucester cast didn't quite know what to make of some of these songs (or perhaps what we will make of them).  For the American musical rarely "does" bitter - and almost never honestly engages with issues of class - so this experienced quartet seemed at something of a loss at first, and you could feel them instinctively trying to "sell" emotional moments that resisted such special pleading.  

The antic nihilism of the opening "Marathon," for instance, didn't come off at all, and "My Death" was a curious misfire. But gradually the spirit of Brel did begin to stir.  Jabara seemed to take most easily to the mode (if not all that easily to French!), and tore through "Amsterdam," a murderous ode to whoring, with memorable force.  Meanwhile Ellis found her feet in the haunting "My Childhood," and Sullivan scored with "Alone" and the wicked snark of "The Bulls." The most affecting performance, however, came from Dirik, who simply sang the hell out of "Marieke," one of Brel's most desolate love songs. And the whole company came together in the nearly-eerie "The Desperate Ones" and especially in the haunting finale, "If We Only Have Love." Ah yes - if only we did;  I suppose as long as we can still wish for that, then the spirit of Jacques Brel survives.

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