There are surely many Jacques Brel purists out there who say: if you translate “Le Moribond” and “Les Filles et Les Chiens” to any other language, you will damage and lose the songwriter’s meaning. The famed Brel recorded a number of songs in English for his UK and American releases in the 1960s and 70s, but make no mistake: he interpreted his world in French, wrote it down in French, and was the sweetheart of the Francophone world.
Brel was renowned for his passionate, oftentimes violent performances, which won him bewildered looks from family but adoration in the artistic community. The listener who cannot comprehend a word of French can often grasp the mood, even the general plot of a Brel song. This is particularly so if they are viewing an old recording of the man in action at one of his concerts. To ask the uninitiated to endure approximately thirty songs is a bit much, however, which is why we have the English language cabaret Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.
In 2006, the Zipper Theatre in New York City mounted a production of Jacques Brel. This year, MetroStage in Alexandria is taking it on, scooping from that production actress Natascia Diaz. Good thing – her masterful handling of the French and Dutch sections of “Ca Va” and “Marieke” was a nod of respect to the man and his songs.
Natascia Diaz, Sam Ludwig, Bobby Smith, and Bayla Whitten were great choices for this production, with not a sub-par performance among them. Little wonder – Bobby Smith was in a Broadway production of Crazy for You, and all actors have taken part in well over a dozen New York and Virginia shows respectively. I cannot know, of course, which actors—aside from Diaz—are longtime fans of Brel and which ones are getting their first exposure, but all appeared reverent of the material. It seemed as if they listened to the sounds of every word even as those sounds left their mouths.
Jacques Brel is a horse of a slightly different color in the cabaret world, however. The singers are meant to be seen as rather consistent characters, with the songs as catalysts for their development. In her MetroStage debut Ms. Whitten was clearly the ingénue who grew into a pensive, romantic woman. All the sweet young thing roles were given to her, and “Timid Frieda” seemed a biography of her character. She was a delight to watch and hear in “Brussels.” Mr. Ludwig and Mr. Smith were a couple of brash and disillusioned men, exasperated by the cyclical nature of things; then, the boys who moon became the mooned over in “The Middle Class.” Ms. Diaz had, on the other hand, a character difficult to place, but whoever she was she was the strong one – the actress’s energy, comedic timing, and vocal range were impressive to behold.
Sam Ludwig was an ideal narrator for “Madeleine,” the song which tells the story of a young man dutifully waiting for hours upon hours upon hours for the girl he loves to show up at her usual haunt, the movie theatre. He positively brayed the titular word in the military-themed “Next,” and the ugly nasal quality delightfully suited the narrator’s utter disdain. Bobby Smith did justice to “Amsterdam,” and was also quite memorable in “The Girls and the Dogs.” Nevertheless, the songs which enjoyed the greatest success with the audience were those in which the entire company took part.
…a commendable job…
I have not, however, forgotten the question I raised in the opening: did translations chip the magic away from Brel’s chansons? Alas, I’m too new to Brel and too French-impaired to really know, but from the snippets of conversation around me at the show’s intermission, it seems most onlookers had cherished vinyl records from back in the day, and memories of Brel warbling throughout their childhood homes. But what is a lover of Brel to do? I found the lyrics pleasant, except, of course, when they weren’t meant to be, which was often (this is as good a time as any to mention that this show is probably not for you if you’re not a fan of the heavier themes in life). I would especially recommend this show for those already familiar with Brel’s work, and who were feeling nostalgic.
To those with a curiosity about this legend seldom mentioned in today’s pop culture, check out some of his old interviews. He was clearly quite the free spirit. The fact that he had such an influence on some big names in contemporary music, of note Bob Dylan and David Bowie, means he is a grandfather to the way many lyrics are written today. I would say at least a passing familiarity would be good to develop.
All in all, MetroStage did a commendable job with the material, and I hope to see these actors in other performances. Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is directed by the Associate Producing Artistic Director of the Studio Theatre, Serge Seiden, with music direction provided by Jenny Cartney and choreography by Signature’s Matthew Gardiner. Musical accompaniment is provided by Yusef Chisholm on the bass, David Cole on guitar, Greg Holloway with percussion, and Cartney on piano and accordion.
Duration: Two hours including a brief intermission.
Advisory: minimal profanity, but the show is not for the kids.
The show runs until October 21st. MetroStage is located at 1201 North Royal Street in Alexandria, Virginia, 22314. For more information on the theatre and for show times and tickets call the box office at 703-548-9044 or click here.