Review: Upbeat rhythms, strong performances lend pep to a bitter ‘Brel’

By Catherine Artman, TribTotal Media



“Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” has been around for nearly as long as Brel was. The Belgian singer-songwriter died in 1978 at age 49; the show originated off-Broadway in 1968.

The entertainment is a collection of about two dozen of Brel’s songs, translated into English. The Pict Classic Theatre presentation is a brisk 80 minutes and is engagingly performed by two men and two women.

They are well-accompanied by four musicians who, for most of the selections in the revue, keep the music peppy and jovial.

That upbeat backup, coupled with the singers’ acting talents, is the secret of this show. Brel’s life was shaped by World War II and its aftermath. Loss figures heavily in most of the songs — loss of innocence, choice, youth. But his stark words are countered by the band’s life-goes-on rhythm and the sass and sarcasm conveyed by the performers. The result is that audience members find themselves smiling and laughing almost in spite of themselves.

One example is the song “Funeral Tango,” as Jonathan Visser’s facial expressions and body language add more mirth than can be found in Brel’s bitter lyrics.

All of the singers have middle-range, strong voices and harmonize beautifully on selections such as “Desperate Ones.”

Caroline Nicolian impresses with her control and lung power on “Carousel,” a dervish of a song that leaves even the audience breathless.

Justin Lonesome and Daina Michelle Griffith each solo on some of the more somber and arresting selections, such as “Sons Of” and “Next.”

The small platform the four work on is scantily furnished so that they have more room to roam, and nothing onstage blocks the audience’s view. The women’s costumes are sort of reminiscent of mid-century Paris, while the men’s are even more vague — maybe a whiff of military for one, romantic bachelor for the other.

Alan Stanford directed the production, which is playing at the Trust Arts Education Center, Downtown.

Because it was selling out so quickly, another week of shows has been added at the Henry Heyman Theatre in Oakland. The seats in the intimate Peirce Studio of the Trust Arts center surround the stage. They are unassigned, so if you arrive early, try to get one of the seats facing the band and stage head-on. If you sit on either side, you’ll miss some of the singers’ sly gestures and facial expressions that kept the mood bright on opening night.

Show times at the Trust Arts Education Center, 805 Liberty Ave., are 4 and 7 p.m. May 5, 8 p.m. May 6 to 8 and 2 and 8 p.m. May 9. The show continues at the Henry Heymann Theatre in Oakland at 8 p.m. May 14 to 16 and 2 and 8 p.m. May 17.

Catherine Artman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7881.

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