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French for Sarcasm
By James Yeara

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Based on Jacques Brel’s lyrics and commentary, music by Jacques Brel; production conception, English lyrics and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, directed by Gordon Greenberg, musical direction by Eric Svejcar, Capital Repertory Theatre, through Feb. 8

For theaters, January is the coldest, cruelest month: Most reserve the month for light fare, musical revues, and old chestnuts. Artistic directors select shows that require little thought from their audiences, seemingly in belief that people brave the cold only for the familiar, the simple, and the unchallenging. Capital Repertory Theatre has followed this formula in the past, but their current production of the 1960s classic Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris not only melts the formula, it scorches it.

This is full-bodied theatre, robust and intended for the sophisticated palate, yet rich in humor and archly presented. This is a production that eschews tepid qualifiers and middling responses: It’s must-hear-and-see theatre for the passionate aficionado and the neophyte who just loves great singing and performing.

Nothing is timid about director Gordon Greenberg’s concept or the supporting stagecraft from set designer Rob Bissinger and lighting designer Traci Klainer. Bissinger’s false proscenium—gears, sprockets, springs, cogs, and the roman numerals of a shattered clock face done in faded brass—frame the foreground of this Jacques Brel well; a series of 21 picture frames of various sizes hung asymmetrically, their canvases changing color with the temperament of the songs, makes for the perfect background. A blood-red-velvet chaise lounge downcenter, a worn brown leather armchair upleft with a beaded lamp casting musky shadows, and Klainer’s lighting plot create the perfect ambiance for Jacques Brel: the smoky hues of a Parisian cabaret. In short, the setting is beautiful. You want to sit back, sip a heady Cabernet, roll your own cigarette, and sing along.

But don’t, for the singing and the performing shouldn’t be missed. Director Greenberg’s cast of four (Don Brewer, Lisa Capps, Jay Montgomery, and the stunning Gay Marshall, who sings as if each song were a longing glance exchanged with a former lover standing next to her current husband), and the three-person band—listening to Eric Svejcar, Michael Wiks, and Rob Cenci’s musicianship is reason alone to brave even Arctic temperatures—are the equal of the stagecraft’s excellence. Cast and band make love to the 24 songs of the revue, creating one highlight after another. The audience is left breathing hard, satisfied, but still longing for more. Marshall in particular exhibits the old-fashion aesthetic that songs should be sung to convey emotions, and should not simply be a series of notes to be hit with such force that they simulate emotion. This is one of a handful of shows that I could see again and again, finding new moments to fall in love with.

Because Jacques Brel at Capital Rep is no simple song recital. The power of Brel is the breadth of his music and the themes of songs, which may account for his songs being covered by artists as diverse as Sinatra, Bono, Bowie, and Sting. Brel can be the essence of heartache, as with “The Desperate Ones”: “They’ve burned their hearts so much/That death is just a game/And if love calls again/So foolishly they run/They run without a sound/The desperate ones.” This song is wisely staged with each performer sharing the stage with the others only by sidelong glances or averted eyes, or looks of longing behind the back—yet always alone.

Brel also stings with his antiwar songs, particularly “Sons Of” and “Maieke.” When Marshall sings with her dewy-eyed brilliance and voice like fine whiskey, “Some went to war, some never came home/Sons of your sons or sons passing by/Children we lost in lullabies . . . ,” Brel’s respect for and heartbreak over the dead create tears to be surreptitiously wiped away in the audience. These songs are more than timely today. This is the soundtrack for pre-emptive war.

But Brel can be devastatingly funny, and truly sarcastic (which means “biting flesh” and was once reserved for that turn of phrase that nipped the complacent, the compliant and the powerful; it should not be mistaken for the facetious or lighthearted comments that the humorless mistakenly decry as sarcasm). Musicals are facetious; Jacques Brel is sarcastic. Brel bites and means to: In “Jackie,” Montgomery almost coyly sings “If I could be for an hour every day/If I could be for just one little hour/Cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way,” hitting squarely the silliness of musical lovers.

Even more pointed is the song “The Middle Class” with its chorus, “The middle class are just like pigs/The older they get, the dumber they get/The middle class are just like pigs/The fatter they get, the less they regret.” The song was greeted with initial silence by its middle-class audience, until the final refrain when the chorus circles back on its singers. It’s a moment that, like every other moment in Capital Rep’s excellent production, earns its richly deserved reaction. Grab your beret and see it today.


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