Wednesday, September 15, 2010
STRATFORD SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL - JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND SINGING AT STRATFORD BUT SHOULD HE BE THERE?
The programme cover for Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris shows Brent Carver airborne leaping over four seated musicians who are looking at him with smiles on their faces. Carver does not perform any such acrobatic feats in the musical that is now playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre as one of the musical offerings of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
It should be noted at first that Jacques Brel is not alive, he is not well and he is certainly not living in Paris. He has been resting in a cemetery on the Marquesas Islands since 1978 but one can fairly say that his spirit has been around through his songs and I suppose there is life in that.
Brel was Belgian, born in 1929, and he wrote a large number of songs which he sang very successfully. The songs were written and sung in French but he managed to win a broad audience. The present show owes its existence and large popularity to the work of Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. They provided colloquial and sometimes quite unfaithful translations of Brel’s lyrics and developed the idea of producing a revue based on about 25 of his songs.
The production opened on Off-Broadway in 1968 and has never looked back. It requires only four singers and four musicians with very few props.
The Stratford production is sung by four talented and highly capable singers namely Brent Carver, Jewelle Blackman, Mike Nadajewski and Nathalie Nadon. They sing the 27 songs in various combinations. There is some dancing and movement around the stage and a bit of humour but the show consists of songs. There is no dialogue and no plot.
It is by no means static. Director Stafford Arima has the singers, and to some extent the musicians, move around the stage and lend variety to the singing.
The songs also provide considerable variety and themes but they also do have a measure of sameness.
“Marathon”, the first song, sends us on a romp through the twentieth century from Charles Lindberg, Sacco and Vanzetti and Black Monday of the 1920’s to Orphan Annie, bread lines and Hitler of the 1930’s and on into the 1990’s where we have robots working in the cotton fields and instant happiness as the century ends. Don’t look for Brel’s lyrics in this song. The French title is “Les Flammandes” and it is about the Flemish. Blau and Shuman provide the Americanized lyrics.
Brel is also capable of biting satire as in “The Middle Class” where he compares them to “pigs /The older they get, the dumber they get … the fatter they get, the less they regret.”
“The Funeral Tango” is sung by someone who is gleefully imagining his own funeral. He laughs bitterly as he watches his friends shed crocodile tears for him and he tries to have a last laugh.
“Madeleine” about a lover waiting for the woman who never comes is done at a very brisk pace and describes a desperate situation of unrequited love.
Brel covers the gamut of themes that one finds in popular songs from love, fulfilled and unrequited, loss, death and then some.
There is considerable variety in the music and in the performances. The show does generate energy and enjoyment. I did find that some of the music began to sound repetitive. In the end the question arises: is this enough to make up an evening at the theatre? There are concerts that provide fewer songs and less entertainment and if the performer is a star charge a great deal more.
Despite the virtues of the performers and the production, I still have reservations about this being an appropriate programme for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris by Jacques Brel (music) and Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, (conception and translation of lyrics) opened on June 11 and will run until September 25, 2010 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600