Theater review: ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’ at the Colony
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What a pleasure it is to visit an old friend after an interval of decades and find him thriving.
In its present production at the Colony in Burbank, “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s musical based on the music, lyrics and commentary of Brel, is not only alive but very well — radiantly so.
Of course, Brel, a Belgian by birth who became the sophisticated standard-bearer for the French cabaret scene, is long dead, having succumbed to throat cancer in 1978 at 49. But the abiding vigor of his eponymous musical has been confirmed several times since its record-breaking off-Broadway run in the late 1960s, most recently in a well-received 2006 revival.
That revival heavily tweaked the original, as does director Jon Lawrence Rivera in the Colony’s version. As in the revival, the song “Marathon,” the original opener, is replaced by the more wryly downbeat “Le Diable (Ça Va).” Other jettisoned numbers include “The Desperate Ones” and “Brussels.” Although we miss those old friends, Rivera’s brisk, strongly sung production leaves us wanting more.
Don’t call Rivera’s concept subtle. But considering his emotionally charged, passion-infused material, his bold approach seems just right. Brel was an impressionable boy when the Nazis swept through Europe, so it’s no wonder that his songs frequently treat themes of mortality, human iniquity and the ravages of war. Although it certainly has its lively moments, Rivera’s staging is essentially a thanatopsis, as evidenced by John H. Binkley’s stark scenic design, the main element of which is a closed casket around which the actor-mourners convene for a memorial ceremony. The second act, set graveside, actually has one of the performers thrashing about in an open grave — an audacious bit of blocking that stops just short of excess.
So too does Gregory Franklin in his first solo, “Jackie,” a breathtakingly histrionic turn that starts Franklin off at such a peak we wonder where he can go from there. Our fears are allayed in Franklin’s subsequent numbers, which are infused with an emotional delicacy that confirms his virtuosic range. Soulful-voiced Jennifer Shelton undergoes a similar progression, from the wide-eyed, almost caricatured mugging of “Timid Frieda” to the heartfelt and pensive “My Death.” With his full-lipped, Gallic features, Zachary Ford even looks a bit like Brel. From his first entrance, he displays a charisma that can’t be bought or taught, particularly in the dramatically charged “Next,” an antiwar plaint that remains as apt today as when first performed. And superb Eileen Barnett performs the two most spectacular songs of the evening, “Sons Of” and “Marieke,” with such feeling and wistfulness that we are moved to tears.
Musical director Brent Crayon, who also spearheads the wonderful onstage band, elicits powerhouse performances from his musically gifted performers. The design standout of the evening is Adam Blumenthal’s lighting, which is perfectly calibrated to the shifting moods of this brightly burnished production, a must-see for Brel fans and those who have yet to experience Brel’s enduring appeal.
–F. Kathleen Foley
“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” Colony, 555 N. 3rd Street, Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Also April 17 and 24 at 3 p.m. and April 29 and May 6 at 8 p.m. (No performance April 11.) Ends May 9. $37-$42. (818) 558-7000 x15. www.colonytheatre.org Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.