In 1968 many Americans had never heard of Jacques Brel, though the Belgian singer-songwriter had been wildly popular in Europe for years. That changed when a song cycle—arguably the first libretto-less musical—called Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris became a huge hit off-Broadway, where it ran for four years at the Village Gate Theatre.
This revue—in that it has no narrative through-line, though it’s much more than a stand-and-deliver collection of songs—is now running in Seattle as a co-production between ACT Theatre and 5th Avenue Theatre. The evening of 26 Brel songs, translated from the French by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, is dazzlingly sung and sparingly designed to highlight the music, as it very well must. The five-person cast is costumed by Harmony Arnold in shades of black, grey and red—generic urbanites, ready to become whatever character the next song demands. Tom Sturge’s set has some beautiful swaths of concentrated color, like an abstract painting stretched and wrapped around the set’s perforated metal shell, which I much preferred to the extraneous-feeling projections sometimes shone there. Much of the staging was functionally elegant—songs melted into one another and actors came and went with well-choreographed efficiency.
But what you’re really here for is the singing, and it is for the singing that you should come. Kendra Kassebaum, Louis Hobson, Eric Ankrim, Cayman Ilika and Timothy McCuen Piggee are all consummate performers of the highest order, and they can crack open Brel’s musical jewels, each practically a self-contained play, with ease. Many of the songs are written in the second or third person, a format that demands an audience’s attention in a way that much modern songwriting does not. Some songs stand out—Ilika’s tender “The Old Folks” and transformational “Timid Freida,” Hobson’s love-lorn “Fanette.” The brutal emotional bait-and-switch in Ankrim’s “Next.” Piggee’s tragicomic number delivered form his own funeral. And of course, Kassebaum’s fervent, feverish delivery of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (perhaps Brel’s most popular song, and the only one here performed in the original French) wrung hearts dry.
Born in Brussels in 1929, Brel’s music has a particular post-War flavor, musically and emotionally eclectic, rhythmically pan-European and saturated with the highs and lows of ecstatic love and excruciating pain. His songs can be playful or poignant or political, fun and witty, criticizing bourgeois pursuits in one number and mourning for lives and loves lost in the next. All the while, Brel’s music faces the inevitability of death head on, without fear or apology—c’est la vie—but not without regret.
But here’s the thing: For some people Jacques Brel is going to be really boring—midcentury French art songs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (like the man next to me who fell very obviously asleep during act one). This is a very exposed show, without elaborate costumes or choreography to hide behind, and people who don’t like Brel music probably just aren’t going to like Brel music, no matter how much you explain to them how relevant these songs are to their lives—on the contrary, the more you complicate the songs the less likely it is that Brel beginners will really hear them. Projections of the Pike Place Market sign, a football helmet grafted onto a matador’s outfit—clever enough touches, but they don’t make timeless songs like Brel’s any more relevant and for me they only served to dilute the lyrics with heavy-handed hokey-ness. That’s what makes Brel’s so incredible—they are relevant, whether they’re sung in the streets of Seattle or a smoky French café.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris runs through May 17 at ACT Theatre.