by Greg Kerestan, Broadway World Pittsburgh


Caroline Nicolian, Justin Lonesome, Jonathan Visser and Daina Michelle Griffith. Photo by Robin Rombach/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Caroline Nicolian, Justin Lonesome, Jonathan Visser and Daina Michelle Griffith. Photo by Robin Rombach/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jacques Brel is, despite the reassuring title, neither alive, nor well, nor living in Paris. The great Belgian singer-songwriter, so beloved in the 1960s and 1970s, died in 1978, and has been largely forgotten since. However, though you may not know him by name, you undoubtedly know his sound, his style. Without Brel, there is no David Bowie, whose early rise to stardom mixing cabaret, folk and grandiouse, dramatic stylings was directly lifted from Brel’s chanson style- even to the extent of covering several Brel numbers. The melodramatic songs of art-pop singer Scott Walker and even the darker, earlier work of Elton John before his fame as a pop songwriter show an equal debt to Brel. (Fun fact for theatre lovers: Brel is one of the three international pop fingers parodied in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s score for JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, alongside Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte.) Since the seventies, Brel has mostly become a footnote, dismissed as too French, too precious, or just too corny- especially after one of his most darkly humorous songs was mistranslated into the treacly “Seasons in the Sun.”

The dark and the light are presented roughly equally in the musical revue JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS, presented in a captivating, often breathless, staging by PICT Classic Theatre at the Pierce Studio. Director Alan Stanford and music director Douglas Levine never let the audience get too comfortable, too complacent, as they hurtle from ballad to comic number to show piece one after another. They have even tweaked the show’s loose, plotless structure and sequence to allow for direct segue from song to song. As scenes change and characters appear and disappear, audiences are denied the ability to applaud until several cathartic moments, making the show feel like a kaleidoscope of ever-changing images. The four-person cast play no roles and represent no archetypes; rather, who they are changes from song to song, or from sequence to sequence. The songs themselves have been stripped of their ornamentation and rearranged for the standard theatre combo of piano, bass, drums and guitar. This gives them a raw, rough feel that essentially negates the cheesy, sometimes sentimental reputation Brel’s music has unduly received.

All four cast members were standouts, singing and harmonizing beautifully while shifting in and out of character. Jonathan Visser, seen in several roles at CLO’s premiere of JUDGE JACKIE JUSTICE last year, provides much of the evening’s comedy in songs like “Madeleine,” in which he plays a hapless suitor fighting for the attention of an uninterested woman, and “Fanette,” in which he plays an oblivious drunk regaling his annoyed date with tales of his lost love. But Visser, whose tall, lanky frame, bright red hair and unique bari-tenor voice recall such alternative leading men as Mandy Patinkin and Brian D’arcy James, also plays some of the show’s most tragic characters, with mute performances as a depressed lover in “No, Love, You’re Not Alone” and as Death itself in “My Death.” In between, Visser brings an acute sense of character to the song “Mathilde,” where he struggles with his joy and disgust at jumping back into an emotionally abusive relationship, and he later provides the scariest, most intense rendition of the sailor standard “Amsterdam” since David Bowie. (Visser’s craggy but melodious voice and great height, along with his knack for finding both the beautiful and grotesque in tragicomic characters, left me thinking he would make a damn fine Shrek in the now-popular musical of the same name.)

Visser’s counterpart in most scenes is beloved Pittsburgh actress Daina Michelle Griffith, who gives a sense of wry, sad humor- the most French kind there is- to songs like “I Loved.” When she sings “No, Love, You’re Not Alone” to the despondent Visser, we believe her, and we also believe she knows there’s no way to get through to him. Griffith shines the brightest in her showpiece, “My Death.” Best known as a spooky, quiet acoustic ballad by David Bowie, Griffith and the band reinvent it as a wailing maelstrom of electric folk-rock drama. It’s a number Grace Slick and Cher would have fought over. Though the show’s other female performer, Caroline Nicolian, has less flashy material throughout, her gorgeous voice and winsome simplicity brings heart to characters such as the protagonist of “Timid Frieda,” or a woman mourning a dead soldier in “Marieke.” Nicolian’s standout moment comes near the show’s climax, when the song “Carousel” shows us her usual innocent character fracturing under the maddening weight of life, as the carnival waltz grows louder and faster and the lights become unbearable. It’s a moment of mental anguish that is all the more disturbing for happening to the seemingly sweetest character in the show.

Undoubtedly, the evening’s standout performance is by Justin Lonesome, who has the good fortune and great voice to handle the show’s most complicated and dynamic musical numbers. His performance in “Jacky,” a wild samba number about a bum with high aspirations, earned the first spontaneous applause of the performance, cutting into a segue between numbers. The flip side to this cheerful, upbeat tune is “Next,” in which he portrays a soldier traumatized by his experiences in the war, particularly his rape-by-proxy at the hands of a “queer lieutenant” who forcibly herded the soldiers into a portable brothel to have their first, hurried and clinical, experience with a woman. Lonesome’s soldier left the war with a social disease, a loss of innocence, and a nasty case of PTSD. As Griffith and Nicolian become the whores, and Visser the leering lieutenant, the number turns quickly in Lonesome’s hands from black comedy to dark drama. His performance as a ghost at his own wake in “Funeral Tango” is also distinctly memorable.

The quartet of performers function just as well as a unit as they do separately, and group numbers like the pleasant, nostalgic “Brussels,” the raunchy and ironic “The Middle Class,” and the quietly desperate “Old Folks.” If the show can be said to have a theme, these group numbers make it the most explicit- in the post-war generation (the last post-war generation so far), the mere act of living, of getting by, was a war in itself, and every person you meet is a survivor in their own way. Under Stanford’s direction, the comedy never gets too broad and the pathos never becomes too pathetic, keeping the more sentimental numbers like “Sons Of” or “If We Only Have Love” from becoming too precious for their own good. The simplicity of Stanford’s set- little more than a table and a few chairs- is aided with Steve Cuden‘s lighting design, which seems to build whole worlds from mere color and shadow. (Eighties and Nineties kids, take note: Cuden was likely a featured writer on whatever your favorite cartoon was.) If chearful bleakness or sentimental cynicism appeal to you, take advantage of the recent extension, grab a glass of wine and a corner table, and spend an evening with Jacques Brel. You’ll never regret it.

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