Frenchman's Creak

Exhumed Jacques Brel loses sense of composer

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is a musical revue that became an off-Broadway staple nearly 30 years ago. Truth be told, Jacques Brel is quite dead. If he weren't, Todd James Smeltzer Productions' current version of this tired homage to the late Belgian lyricist might very well kill him.

This is the season's second show by the troupe, which premiered last season with a workshop of this very revue, featuring the same director and much of the same cast. So Smeltzer and company have had plenty of time to polish the production and smooth out the revue's numerous rough spots.

You wouldn't know it by the lackluster look of this show. The performers (Stephen Goodfriend, Randolph M. Carels and Todd James Smeltzer himself) all sing beautifully. But their wonderful harmonizing and solo spots are contrasted with staging that screams "amateur hour." Several numbers are accompanied by trite black-and-white slide shows meant to illuminate the lyrics. Still others find cast members standing around staring meaningfully at whoever happens to be singing. Even when the cast is more mobile, there's no energy onstage.

Perhaps the company has been too busy learning the words to Brel's demanding songs to be troubled with complicated blocking. The problem with this revue is that there's so much of it. In a 90-minute performance, 26 songs by any songwriter is about 12 too many. Brel's writing is not particularly diverse, and Eric Blau and Mort Shuman's exacting translations prove that a lot of his work isn't aging well. Three decades ago, these songs of love and war probably seemed wry and sophisticated. Today, they're about as relevant as a rerun of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

At least on that show, there were the pleasant vocal talents of Jennifer Warren. But here, all the songs are sung by men. Several would have benefited from a female interpretation, and a voice to break the all-male monotony.

As it is, I left the theatre wishing I'd heard an audio cassette of the lovely vocal performances rather than witnessing a lot of unfortunate stagings of them. But even the stiffest performance of this revue can't seem to kill it; this umpteenth celebration of Brel's music lives on in his wake. But only barely.

--Robrt L. Pela

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris continues through Sunday, October 27, at Kerr Cultural Center, 6110 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. The production moves to Third Street Theatre, 1202 North Third Street, for shows Friday, November 1, through Sunday, November 3.

 
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