Jacques Brel was born in Belgium in 1929. He migrated to France in his early 20s, singing his intriguing and poetic songs in the taverns, cafés and inns of the French countryside. His fame and following grew and by the time he moved to Paris some years later, he had become the leading chansonnier, or pop troubadour, of France.
In 1967 a compendium of two dozen or so of his songs were adapted and assembled into a musical production by translator Eric Blau and rock composer Mort Shuman. Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris opened in 1968 and ran for 1,847 performances over four and a half years, at New York's Village Gate theater, an off-Broadway venue.
I first saw this cabaret of Brel's bittersweet, witty and often mordant songs more than 30 years ago in a regional production that remains quite vivid in my memory. Also, I have listened to the original cast album about as many times as I have Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thus, this devoted fan often had to restrain himself from singing along with the engaging quartet of performers who resurrected this librettoless musical in Mad Cow's intimate Stage Left theater, under the spirited direction of Alan Bruun.
The cast of four George Altman, Gail Bartel, Sara Jones and Rick Stanley all tear into Brel's comic material with great abandon and technical savvy. Renditions of tunes like "Madeleine," "The Statue," "Girls and Dogs" and "Brussels" are pure delight, melding artfully delivered vocals with well-acted choreography.
The company does equally well with Brel's faster-paced dramatic numbers. Stanley and company deliver a rousing version of "Amsterdam," and Jones shines both in the dizzying "Carousel" and with her powerful version of "Marieke," Brel's paean to his native Flanders.
Bartell's strong and clear soprano provides the most moving testimony to Brel's sure command of the ballad, in songs like "My Death," "Sons of," "Old Folks" and "You're Not Alone." More often than not, she simply finds her onstage light and sings these tales of lost love, lost life and lost hope movingly and without cant or artifice.
If the show has any weaknesses at all, it may be in a few of the solos by Altman and Stanley. In "Alone," "Bachelor's Dance" and "The Bulls," Altman, a newcomer to Mad Cow, misses some of Brel's self-mocking humor and caustic worldview. Veteran Stanley misfires somewhat in "Mathilde" when he goes for middle-aged ruefulness instead of a husky, hell-bent machismo, and the sad longing of "Fanette" seems just out of his reach. When the two team up, however, for their duets, like "Middle Class" and "Next," the results are much more on target.
Ultimately, what keeps this production of Jacques Brel on track, in addition to the solid commitment of the performers, is the attractive harmonies that Shuman (who starred in the original New York production) has woven throughout Brel's haunting melodies. At times the music is achingly beautiful as the four voices, ably backed up by pianist Robin Jensen and percussionist Carl Rendek, navigate the delicate and lyrical strains with precision and warmth.
There is no talk and there are no explanations in this two-hour revue. The 25 songs are performed back-to-back with one minidrama following fast on the heels of another. For old Brel fans, like myself, the long wait to see it again onstage has had a most satisfying ending. For those hearing Brel's genius for the first time, beware: These tunes have a way of sticking to the heart. You will want to hear them again and again.