By Cynthia Citron
BURBANK, California–At the time that his most popular songs were put together in a musical compendium called “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” he was. But just a decade later he was dead of lung cancer at the age of 49, and his emotionally charged ballads had gone on to achieve their own kind of immortality in 25 million sales worldwide.
This month, as the final production of its 35th anniversary season, the award-winning Colony Theatre has mounted a bright and lively version of this extraordinary musical. Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, credited with translating Brel’s lyrics into English, have provided new material, along with the production conception for this moving and thrilling presentation.
Four superb singers and a marvelous five-piece band are joined onstage by a coffin, to which the singers direct their emotions and their meditations on life and love and loss and aging and death. Unnamed, the singers (identified as Woman #1 and #2 and Man #1 and #2) take turns singing Brel’s songs, filled with pathos and hope and disappointment and ennui. Eileen Barnett, Gregory Franklin, Jennifer Shelton, and Zachary Ford are the singers, and each brings a different momentum to the songs.
Brel was known for building tension and an accelerating urgency to his songs, and the four singers more than do him justice. But Brel himself was given to more plaintive renditions of his music, as evidenced by his many performances preserved on YouTube. His overall oeuvre, however, anticipates the promise of a similar body of distinctive work by composer Stephen Sondheim.
Other productions of “Jacques Brel” have started with the song “Les Flamandes,” or “Marathon,” which Shuman and Blau translated to encapsulate 20th century America. The original song, in French, however, was actually a tongue-in-cheek assessment of the Flemish. (Brel was born in Belgium, of Flemish descent, but lived most of his life in France.) The Colony production did not include “Les Flamandes,” but began with a rousing paean to the devil, “Le Diable.”
Also included is Brel’s most famous song, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” (“Don’t Leave Me”), which has been recorded more than 400 times in some 22 languages. In English it is known as “If You Go Away,” and although it has become a classic it is often criticized as a poor translation, by Rod McKuen, of the original French poetic lyricism.
In the second act, in keeping with the funereal theme and the now-buried coffin, the songs include “Old Folks,” “Funeral Tango,” “My Death,” and “Song for Old Lovers.” Evocative and melancholy, they feel like songs Albert Camus might have written if he wrote music instead of books. But under the able direction of Jon Lawrence Rivera and musical director Brent Crayon, the production keeps moving briskly and never bogs down in the painful aspects of the life that Brel explores.
In his own life, Brel moved on from being an international cabaret star to acting and directing, and also became a pilot. He spent the last few years of his life in the Marquesas Islands, in the South Pacific, and is buried there a few feet away from the grave of Paul Gauguin.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris will continue at the Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, in Burbank, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through May 9th. Call (818) 558-7000 x15 for tickets.
Yes, 32 years after his death, Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Burbank. Stephen Sondheim should live so long!
Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World