Jacques Brel is Alive and Well in an Ann Arbor pub
ANN ARBOR, Mich.–The Belgian-born French troubadour Jacques Brel was passionately obsessed with love and death. And sex and death. And women and death. He had a peculiar eye for turning existential angst into comedy. His music has been performed by greats such as Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, and influenced David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, among others. While it is very much born of mid to late 20th-century France, and yet it ultimately transcends both place and time.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well in Paris, a musical revue of his music that originally opened Off Broadway in 1968, is both delightful and utterly absurd; which makes it perfectly fitting as the opener for The Penny Seats Theatre’s current season. It’s a cabaret-style French show in translation performed in an Ann Arbor Irish Pub. Why not? It works beautifully.
Penny Seats puts on the original play, and the songs are an eclectic mix ranging from dirge to show tune to lullaby to love ballad to bawdy bar song. Though regardless of mood or form, the music is undeniably French, even while being performed in English translation (by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman) by a group of Michiganders.
There’s no real overarching narrative in this 70-minute one-act that passes by in a flash. The variety and lively performances are more than enough to capture one’s attention and imagination.
Director Laura Sagolla gets Brel and his sensibility and guides a terrific cast. The four actors, two men and two women, are utterly amusing storytellers and work beautifully together to bring this show to life in this intimate space, a small platform stage with static lighting and minimal set pieces and props in a shotgun room. At turns, they create lovely harmonies together, dance and dramatize the vignettes in each song.
Natalie Rose Sevick shines with her pretty, strong, calm voice with gentle vibrato in various love ballads—and as the object of affection. Lauren M. London is a stronger actor than singer, and she’s especially good and a little bit subversive in humorous ensemble pieces such as “Middle Class.” Brendan Kelly transforms youthful energy into naiveté, has a fine falsetto, and is a charming physical presence.
Roy Sexton is the true showman of this production, the stand-in for Brel’s notorious histrionics and bold impassioned performances with his huge voice, animated face, and silly interactions with the audience. He’s wonderful with bawdy, lusty, sleazy material, such as “Amsterdam,” about sailors “with their pride in their pants;” “Funeral Tango,” a deliciously outrageous tirade from a corpse at his own funeral; and Middle Class, a song in which a group of drinkers moon members of the hypocritical middle class who are “just like pigs, the older they get the dumber they get, the fatter they get the less they regret.”
Fun choreography by Paige Martin has the actors, at turns, performing armography, low kicks, formal partner dances, and otherwise transforming themselves into objects like a carousel in a particularly mesmerizing number.
Richard Alder’s music direction is mostly supportive and unobtrusive; the four-member band situated solidly stage right shows extraordinary virtuosity and adds to the overall excellent of this production.
Though Jacques Brel is no longer alive and well in Paris (or anywhere), thanks to Penny Seats’ production of his quirky collection of songs, unpretentious theatre is alive and well in Michigan.