Stage preview: PICT extends ‘Jacques Brel’ run before opening show

By Sharon Eberson/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Daina Michelle Griffith and Jonathan Visser. Photo by Robin Rombach/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Daina Michelle Griffith and Jonathan Visser. Photo by Robin Rombach/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Douglas Levine had of course heard of Jacques Brel and knew some of his songs, but “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” was new to the music man of local theater when he was asked to help stage the revue for PICT Classic Theatre.

Mr. Levine, a ubiquitous presence as music director and pianist in productions throughout Pittsburgh, has booked a busy spring that includes helping out with City Theatre’s “Midsummer,” a play with music “that’s its own animal,” and the world premiere of his opera “Mercy Train,” bowing at Microscopic Theatre on June 19.

Just now, he is immersed in the story-songs of Jacques Brel and the string of 25 songs woven into a show by Eric Blau and Mort Schuman in the 1960s. The Belgian-born Brel, who died in 1978 at age 59, also was an actor and director, reflected in the theatrical nature of his lyrics. Many of his songs were translated for English-speaking performers — for example, the Terry Jacks hit “Seasons in the Sun,” based on Brel’s “Le Moribond,” has been covered by artists from the Beach Boys to Nirvana.

“My appreciation for his genius increases every rehearsal as I now get to see how much meat on the bones there is for an acting singer,” Mr. Levine says.

“Each song is about the goodness and badness within us. It expresses that wonderful range of human emotion,” explains PICT artistic and executive director Alan Stanford, who is directing the production with Mr. Levine as music director.

Mr. Stanford has said he cast for storytellers first and he arrived at a quartet comfortable in both worlds of theater — plays and musicals — and each “a solid double threat,” Mr. Levine says. “The presentation of the show is going to be very simple and confined to a demure platform. It’s going to be very stripped down so it’s really about the words and the ability of these actors.”

Before the show was cast, before the scores had arrived, Mr. Stanford came to Mr. Levine’s home, and they sat at a piano as the director expressed his early vision for the more than two dozen stories and characters that come through in each song.

The director known for his acting and directing skills but not musical theater has made this a true collaborative effort, his music directors says. Mr. Levine has tinkered with arrangements here and there, and the actors feel free to make suggestions.

“You realize quickly the appeal of the show for a director or actor,” Mr. Levine says. “The material is deep; the songs are not just rich musically and capture a certain kind of idiom that’s multinational and folky; the songs are kind of tabula rasas. I’m mixing up the style of some of the songs, and then again, as far as the story, you could spin the subtext however you want, and I think it’s going to be a fun reveal to the audience … and that will be part of the fun of watching the show, discovering what the story is in the song.

For Mr. Levine, the discovery has come through unexpected connections to songs. He uses as an example “Old Folks,” a lament about the elderly waiting for death. An example of the lyrics:

“… they try to escape the old silver clock/ When day is through

”It tick-tocks oh so slow, it says, ’Yes,’ it says, ’No’/ It says, ’I’ll wait for you.’

“The old, old silver clock that’s hanging on the wall/That waits for us/ All”

“Some of the musically simplest songs in the show are also the most effective and effecting, for instance ‘Old Folks,’ which is a down-tempo song, very simple, very repetitive. But when you get it on its feet in live performance with actors and subtext, you realize the power of simplicity and that layers of meaning are served by something that on the surface is so transparent.

“So my first exploration into the score, playing it for myself, if you had asked me my five favorite songs, I wouldn’t have included ‘Old Folks.’ As a musician and a composer and someone who appreciates good lyrics, I still would have said, ‘What are we going to do with this thing? It’s sad, it’s slow …’ But it’s so beautiful. Just working it musically, I’m reminded that stuff doesn’t come alive until it’s performed live in front of an audience.”

The show is the second and final PICT production in its inaugural Downtown Series, in the intimate Peirce Studio on the ground floor of the Trust Arts Education Center. It could be labeled a success even before “Jacques Brel” comes to life; the revue was sold out throughout its originally scheduled run and sparked PICT to add three shows.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m not always excited at this point in the process. I usually save my windup for when the band shows up,” Mr. Levine says with a laugh. He thinks the audience will be excited, too, when they see the company’s approach.

“[Mr. Stanford] is bringing a different slant to it. The flip side of the coin when you say there’s a story in each lyric is there’s a play — a story is a play, if you’re a theater director. So each song is going to be like a little drama. It’s a really fascinating take on the script.”

 

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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