Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Stratford 2010 - Jacques Brel...

The name of the show -- Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris -- is sadly incorrect. The Flemish songwriter died in 1978. But that doesn't mean his works are gone, and the song cycle that was put together by Mort Shulman and Eric Blau when the title was true is still alive and doing very well at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

The original format -- two men, two women, and a small orchestra -- hasn't been changed since the first time it was staged in 1968 and it is still effective. The direction of Stafford Arima and the powerful voices of Jewelle Blackman, Brent Carver, Michael Nadajewski, and Robin Hutton (subbing for Nathalie Nadon) handled the music and the lyrics very well. The musical direction by Laura Burton, using new orchestrations by Rick Fox, were impeccable. The stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, which is a converted curling rink, served the staging well; Brel is a production best served in an intimate venue, and since Stratford is a long way from Greenwich Village, this was as good a place as any to do it.

There is no through-line or plot to the song cycle; each one stands on its own. But the overall theme of Brel's songs -- cynical, poignant, and often dripping with acidic commentary on life and love -- combine to give you a somewhat sardonic look at life through his eyes. But just when you think he's dug the scalpel in, he pulls you in another direction; giddy, distraught, mocking, and sometimes cruel. But just when you think you've seen his life through the haze of cigarette smoke in a boozy nightclub on the Left Bank, the final song, "If We Only Have Love," is an anthem to uplifting hope and promise. Gotcha.

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