Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is a musical revue that dates back to the late sixties. It was an opportunity to present to English-speaking audiences the world of Brel with translations by Mort Shurman and Eric Blau, which are considered to best capture the spirit of Brel.
There is no particular story that holds the songs together; the performers move about the stage and amongst the band without saying anything. But over the course of the evening you become acquainted with Brel's song (each are complicated enough to be considered little three-act plays) and his sarcastic, wry observations about older generations, war, death and unrequited love. And if you are lucky enough to be sitting the cabaret seats at the front you may get Daniel Boys pouring your a drink.
In the first half there are a series of songs about war. For Brussels, the performers dance and sing as if they are in a silent comedy sing Brel's sarcastic lines about how wise his grandparents were at a time when "a million guns got loaded and World War One exploded". The loss of life and futility of war seem to have greater currency alongside commemorations to mark the start of the First World War.
The second half focuses more on unrequited love and death. Eve Polycarpou stops the show with her heart breaking rendition of Ne Me Quitte Pas, which she sings sitting on the edge of the stage with a guitar. Later David Burt pops out of a coffin to sing Funeral Tango which is a hilarious song delivered with some impeccable comic timing (and coffin lid slamming). Gina Beck also delivers a beautifully light and biting version of Old Folks which is alternatively hilarious and tragic, with lines such as: "though you may live in town, you live so far away, when you have lived too long."
Mort Shurman and Eric Blau's translations are perhaps with the passing of time not always as biting as they could be for today's audiences and the power of these lyrics to shock may have diminished. But the production also takes Eric Svejcar's orchestral arrangements from the long-running 2006 Off-Broadway production, which adds a welcome variety to the show with its mix of musical styles of rock, folk and latin beats.
An excellent introduction (or refresher) into the world of Brel. Don't miss it. It runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 22 November and tickets can be booked via the theatre's website.
First impressions after the show with @johnnyfoxlondon follow.
listen to ‘Brel Boom: First impressions with @johnnyfoxlondon of @jacquesbreluk @charingcrossthr opening night’ on audioBoom
Photo credits: Scott Rylander