For a perfect evening out, begin with a classic songbook, add a healthy dose of solid singing, sprinkle some discreet and witty choreography, and voilà—you’ve got Creative Cauldron’s revival of the off-Broadway standard Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Laura Connors Hull (the Cauldron’s current Producing Director) and Matt Connor have collaborated on a production that is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest songwriters in the French language of our times.
If the name Jacques Brel is new to you, check out a few of his tunes on YouTube; chances are the first thing you’ll notice is that nearly all his melodies are simple, bright and cheerful. The second thing you’ll notice, however, is that the lyrics undercut that surface happiness, and introduce a cast of memorable characters. Two or three songs in, you find yourself leaning forward to catch the nuances of Brel’s characters and their gritty, unfulfilled lives.
… a fitting tribute to one of the greatest songwriters in the French language of our times.
If you come out to see Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, here’s what you’re going to find: a young recruit, naked (lyrically, not literally) and waiting for his army physical; there’s a woman desperate to rekindle a dying romance; around the corner is some sad sack of a guy, bouquet in hand, hoping that his dream date will finally show up this time. The show boasts 24 of Brel’s songs, all great stories, and performed with verve and conviction by some of the area’s most talented musical performers.
It’s tempting to compare Brel’s style with that of American rockers like Bruce Springsteen, whose simple, upbeat melodies (like “Born in the USA” or “Hungry Heart”) always mask a much darker story. But truth be known it was Jacques Brel who inspired the likes of Springsteen, not to mention Bob Dylan, David Bowie and a host of other legendary rockers. It didn’t hurt that Judy Collins and Joan Baez had hits with his material, too.
Directors Hull and Connor have selected four unique performers, each with their own vocal and physical presence, to suit the many moods and characters in Brel’s world. And the match-ups between artist and song are remarkably good; Alan Naylor cuts a cool figure, tall and lean, and his operatic-quality voice is in fine form as the frustrated lover in “Madeleine” or the jaded raconteur of “Amsterdam.” Shaina Virginia Kuhn’s reedy soprano gives just the right wistful, haunting quality to the dirge-like “My Death” and “Old Folks,” while John Loughney gives us the nervous edge of a man awaiting the return of his lover/nemesis in “Mathilde” or the half-spiteful attitude of “Funeral Tango.” Katie McManus’s personality fills the room with numbers like the classic “Sons of” (made famous by Judy Collins) and “You’re Not Alone.”
Because this show was created in the age before the “jukebox musical,” you don’t have the cloying semi-biographical scenes between songs, as if every tune needed to be justified by some vital detail in Brel’s life. Instead the cast moves briskly in and around each song, making full use of the Creative Cauldron’s intimate space: a hideous support pillar, with Christopher Mayer’s soft lighting, becomes a charming street corner where the singers bare their souls, and Margie Jervis’ simple set permits the performers any number of opportunities to stand and deliver, or lie down, or slump, flirt—whatever the occasion calls for. You won’t notice the time, and with Virginia Rice’s musical direction you will find yourself floating effortlessly from tune to tune.
Running Time: 100 minutes without intermission.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris runs through October 26, 2014 at the Creative Cauldron, 410 S Maple Ave, Falls Church, VA. Tickets can be ordered by calling 703-436-9948 or click here.