Stage review: ‘Jacques Brel’ lives again in PICT’s fresh new adaptation

PICT Classic Theatre’s “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” — or to the point, “living in Pittsburgh,” as director Alan Stanford said in his opening-night remarks Saturday — struck a chord with audiences before a note of music was played.

The originally scheduled run of shows at the Trust Arts Center’s black-box theater sold out, then three shows were added and, as they, too, filled up, five more performances were arranged at the Henry Heymann Theatre, part of PICT’s Oakland home in the Stephen Foster Memorial.

Perhaps there were fond remembrances from a long-ago seen professional production or a curiosity factor about PICT choosing a musical revue. Now that it is here, the show that is fast approaching 50 years old seems fresh and and nostalgic, delivering an emotional jolt while conjuring a time when folk singers sang their minds about the state of the human condition.

Jacques Brel has been referred to as the French Dylan, but his chansons tend to be more intimate and often quite sad. The revue of more than two dozen songs, translated to English and first produced by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, is rich territory to explore for a director and talented singer-storytellers.

Mr. Stanford’s no-frills adaptation for PICT imagines each of the Belgian troubadour’s highly theatrical pieces as a one-act play for his cast of four. “Madeleine,” for example, starts with the two men of the production, baritone Jonathan Visser and tenor Justin Lonesome, waiting for the lady of the title in their separate agonies, and when Madeleine (CLO Cabaret veteran Caroline Nicolian) finally arrives, she turns away and adds a surprise ending to their wait.

It’s a light moment in a revue that more often reflects the dramatic vignettes played out in Brel’s lyrics, while reminding us of the lovely melodies that have inspired artists to cover his songs for decades.

The actors never leave the platform thrust stage, with the four-piece band making beautiful music downstage and a few steps above the action. The cast members have chairs, a table, a coat rack, a few props and few feet of checkered stage on which to play, and each is captivating in turn or together. They meld in wonderful harmony on songs such as Brel’s “If We Only Had Love,” perhaps his best-known and most covered work.

The loveliness of the tunes can lull you at the start, with seemingly benign beginnings building to emotional peaks.

The song “Timid Frieda,” about a girl heading out into the world on her own with two valises in hand, finds Ms. Nicolian looking a bit like Marlo Thomas in “That Girl,” except the city isn’t welcoming. Warned about streets “where the cops all perish,” her attitude hardens as she readies to make her “[expletive] stand.”

The versatile, sultry Daina Michelle Griffith and Mr. Visser share the stage for two songs in which one or the other is singing, but they create a lovely little feat of harmonious performance. In “Fanette,” he sings of a lost love, promising the last word on the subject but continually coming back to it, much to the annoyance of his date. In the wrenching “You’re Not Alone,” she tries desperately to persuade the man in her life that things will get better, while the usually uber-expressive Mr. Visser stares forlornly into space.

Mr. Lonesome, seen in PICT’s first foray Downtown, “For the Tree to Drop,” lends his tenor and strength to songs such as “La Chanson de Jacky” (or just “Jackie”), in which he lists reasons why he would prefer to be “cute, cute, cute, in a stupid-ass way.” It’s an outlook reminiscent of “If I Were a Rich Man,” and features a cute-impressive guitar solo by John Marcinizyn.

“Jacques Brel,” the musical, like the man it is named for, is a quirky piece of work. It must have been a crowded place, inside the mind of Brel, where ruminations on love and war and death seem to have forced their way out in chansons made for drowning ones sorrows in smoky cafes.

The show flies by in 80 minutes without intermission, a mini-musical of songs from a particular time and place yet timeless in their subject matter. PICT’s new production respects the past and reinvigorates it to for today’s eager audiences.

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

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