Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
nytheatre.com review by Gyda Arber
March 24, 2006
I was anxiously awaiting the new revival of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris; growing up on my mother’s fond memories of the original production prepared me to instantly love this one. What could be better than the quintessential off-Broadway revue returning to off-Broadway? Imagine my disappointment, then, upon finding this production lifeless, cold, and unengaging.
The show is little more than a collection of Jacques Brel’s songs, translated into English and sung by a cast of four. Well-known pieces like “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and “If We Only Have Love” are mixed with more obscure pieces to create a dark, charming show. The simplicity of the original production seems to have served the piece well; how unfortunate, then, that director Gordon Greenberg has taken such a heavy hand, recreating the show to his liking. The songs have been rearranged, new ones added and others taken away. Many have new translations or arrangements vastly different from the original. Props are everywhere, and each of the performers wanders around with a liquor glass of some sort throughout the show—a cute gimmick at first, but one that grows old quickly. And, despite the Zipper Theater ’s intimate setting, the four cast members, all accomplished singers, are unnecessarily miked, creating a distance between the audience and each performer.
The cast does what it can under these circumstances, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Robert Cuccioli fares best, effortlessly channeling a uniquely French humor and pathos in each of his songs. His first number, “Jackie,” is performed as a tour de force, and he sustains the high energy throughout the evening. Natascia Diaz has some incredibly touching moments, especially in the songs “Old Folks” and “You’re Not Alone,” but can’t quite seem to sustain them throughout her numbers. Gay Marshall plays the French Chanteuse well, but Rodney Hicks, whose presence is so perfectly suited to a large Broadway house, seems too large and out-of-place in the intimate setting. Musical director Eric Svejcar hops off the piano a few times to join the men in rousing song; each time he does the show gets a boost of needed energy. Mark Dendy’s choreography fits in nicely—I especially adored the staging for “Madeleine,” and Jeff Croiter’s lighting is beautiful and clearly evokes the perfect mood for each song.
The culminating moment of the revue occurs when the cast begins to sing Brel’s most famous piece, “If We Only Have Love.” In this production, however, the simple ballad is reworked as a triumphant march. Anticipating the beauty of this touching song nearly the entire show, I literally felt robbed by this upbeat, celebratory, incongruous arrangement, much like my feeling for the entire show. Though many revivals can far outshine the original production (the current production of Chicago comes to mind) sometimes keeping what works, works best.