REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Nearly fifty years ago, a new type of musical made its debut on the Off-Broadway circuit. Despite its bulky title, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was a huge hit when it made its debut in January 1968, running for 1,847 performances before a token appearance on Broadway four years later. The show constituted a revue of songs by the Belgium-born songwriter Brel, who embraced the traditional French chanson, lyric-driven numbers designed for cabaret performance. The time was ripe for such a show. Jacques Brel captured the imagination of the ’60s with its two dozen unrelated songs (translated into English by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman) reflecting on such concepts as love, regret, hope, life and death, relationships, and middle class values. A new production, featuring a four-person cast, is being staged by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles through August 27.
Neither alive nor well these days (he died in 1978 at the age of 49), Brel and his rich songs deserve better than the Odyssey’s uneven, unimaginative treatment. Scenic designer Alex Kolmanovsky decided on a colorless, blank canvas that evokes nothing – a bare stage with transparent plexiglas monoliths suspended from the ceiling, and a two-stepped charcoal colored platform that the cast sits or lies on. Nothing about the looks of the show summon up the vibrant, colorful, psychedelic ’60s, nor even the stylishly monochromatic au courant Parisian fashions of the period. In fact, the setting and costuming are totally uninspiring, which is a shame considering the robust emotions of the songs and the generally well-performed numbers.
Of the four performers, Miyuki Miyagi best represents the magnificence and passion of Brel’s songs. Her enchanting voice has that little something extra that separates hers from others of her ilk – a bell-like soprano with a husky, honeyed edge that puts an exclamation mark on her singing. A wisp of a girl, Miyagi perfectly reflects the Twiggy-thin build women aspired to at the time. Regrettably, Miyagi only gets several solos in the show, but she excels on them all, most notably “Timid Frieda,” with its music box melody and lyrics about a frightened runaway tightly clutching her valises, and “Brussels,” which glorifies the halcyon days of the silent movie-mad Belgian capital during World War I.
The imposing Marc Francoeur also fares well in the role originally created by composer Mort Shuman in the Off-Broadway production. Francoeur has a burly presence that can be both bull-like and teddy bear funny. (To the credit of the production, none of the singers utilize microphones; Francoeur doesn’t need one anyway) He does well on the more exuberant, bombastic numbers like the forceful “Amsterdam” (which takes its melody from “Greensleeves”) but his best solo was on “Funeral Tango,” playing a corpse that rises from his grave to cast aspersions on his “phony friends” who can’t wait until his funeral is over.
Less effective is Susan Kohler, who has the bulk of the solos in the show. Neither the achingly beautiful “Sons Of” (which sounds like the Chipmunks hit “The Christmas Song”) nor the exquisite “Marieke” are suitable for Kohler’s wide vibrato belt and it quickly becomes wearing. Similarly, Michael Yapujian’s sharp-edged, unattractive voice simply does not have the range required for his solos. His rubbery build serves him well, however, especially on the Act II opener, “The Bulls,” which decries the sport of bullfighting:
“On Sundays the bulls get so bored
When they are asked to drop dead for us
The sword will plunge down and the mob will drool
The blood will pour down and turn the sand to mud.”
Some of the best songs in the show were the ensemble numbers: “Madeleine,” sung from the perspective of a man getting stood up by his date while excitedly waiting for her in front of a movie house, and “Carousel,” a swirling, accelerating musical kaleidoscope that features Kohler snappily running off the lyrics, comparing life’s ups and downs to that of a runaway carousel.
Music director Anthony Lucca directs the effective, non-intrusive musical quartet, but it would have been nice to have heard an accordion to enhance the evocative atmosphere of some of the songs.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is not really a revue, but represents one of the earliest examples of a pop musical, one that showcases the works of a specific writer or performer. Coming before Beatlemania and the Fats Waller-themed Ain’t Misbehavin’, the earliest examples of this type of show (both of which also featured four performers), Jacques Brel is rarely staged today, so it is well worth fighting the freeway hordes and L.A. parking issues to venture down to the Odyssey to see it.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris plays through August 27 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. For tickets, visit www.odysseytheatre.com or call the box office at (310) 477-2055, ext. 2.