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Paulanne Simmons

"Jacques Brel Is [Still] Alive and Well…"

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

"Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
The Zipper Theatre
336 West 37th St.
Opened March 27, 2006
Mon. Thurs. and Fri. 8 p.m., Tues. 7 p.m., Sat, 3 & 8 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m.
$65 (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Open ended
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 28, 2006

When "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" was first performed at The Village Gate in the late 60s, M. Brel was still alive and well, although not necessarily living in Paris, as he was often on tour. Now, as the show opens at The Zipper Theatre, the Grand Jacques has been dead for 27 years, but he left behind a rich musical oeuvre consisting of ballads, tangos, waltzes and many songs that defy definition.

Director Gordon Greenberg uses translated lyrics by poet Eric Blau and lyricist Mort Shuman; three musicians: Eric Svejcar (music director/piano/accordion/guitar), Steve Gilewski (bass), and Brad Carbone (percussion); and four singer/actors: Robert Cuccioli, Rodney Hicks, Natascia Diaz and Gay Marshall, all Broadway veterans, to restage the show, which ran for 1,847 performances at The Village Gate.

The performers create joyous, ironic, tender and melancholy scenarios or sing solo on a stage furnished with worn period furniture, wine bottles and peculiar bric-a-brac, which set designer Robert Bissinger apparently hopes will give the show a French flavor. And he's not far off the mark: this reviewer lived one year in the 17th arrondissement in an apartment that, except for an old red rug and chandeliers that looked like they'd survived the revolution, was not much different. But in spite of his efforts, "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" doesn't seem much more Gallic than French fries at McDonald's.

It's not that the songs have been translated into English (although Brel, for whom the sound of lyrics was just as important as the sense, does suffer in translation). In fact Marshall, who lived for many years in Paris, sings "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "Marieke" in French and Dutch with such longing one can believe she might have touched Brel's romantic heart. It's rather that the actors look, move and wear clothing with an air that's as American as apple pie.

Cuccioli sports a gray suit and tie more suited to Madison Avenue in the early 60s than the Latin Quarter in the late 60s. Hicks could be the first African American youth in his family to go to prep school.

So, if "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" is not French, then what is it? First of all, it is first class entertainment with wonderful songs beautifully sung by talented performers. Second, it is a fine tribute to the best that's come out of France (Brel was really Belgian, but let's not quibble over details) since brie and champagne.

Brel sang about sailors and whores, the aged and the young, lovers and losers. His lyrics are profoundly tender as in his most famous ballads "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "Quand On N'a Que l'Amour" ("If We Only Have Love") and sometimes just profound as in the lyric "I prayed to Satan When I was Scared of God."

There are times during the evening when "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" loses energy. Some of Brel's more conversational songs do not translate as well as others into English and onto an American stage. But at other times--when Marshall sings the haunting call for peace "Sons of" or the ensemble has fun with "Timid Frieda"-- the show reminds us that the word "encore" is indeed French.

Jacques Brel wrote and sang the kind of songs that make us think and feel. They are about people, ideas, life and death. At a time when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw fit to choose the brutal and brutalizing "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" as the year's best song, this reviewer would like to see "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" run forever.

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