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Saturday, 26 June 2010

L’esprit de Jacques Brel c’est douce-amère

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Production Conception, English Lyrics and Additional Material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
Based on Jacques Brel’s Lyrics and Commentary
Music by Jacques Brel
Directed by Stafford Arima
Featuring: Jewelle Blackman, Brent Carver, Mike Nadajewski, Nathalie Nadon and orchestra members Laura Burton, Anna Atkinson, George Meanwell and Luc Michaud

The Story: A single light bulb hangs over a bare stage, one wall of which is draped in looped red curtains. A thunderclap and all goes black. As the light crackles back on, it reveals the stage now surrounded by eight figures. They each take a tentative step onto the stage, smile in recognition of each other, and one moves to the piano on the platform. Three notes, and the Marathon begins…

So it is not as much a story as a loose narrative built around twenty-six songs from the catalogue of Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel. The eight figures arrive when an audience has gathered to hear them. They have no formal names; four of them are musicians, four of them are singers. The songs they perform are touching, comical, romantic, and nearly all are performed with the trademark Brel crescendo. And although each song has a distinct story and character, listen carefully - they are almost all touched with something darker, even the ones that will at first induce hysterical giggling.

As soon as Marathon is complete, the dark red curtain is swished away, revealing a wall papered with curling, faded posters from past concerts the ensemble has given, and which has scattered frames, the largest of which is of Jacques Brel himself. Then the fun really begins.

Mike Nadajewski (left) performs most of the comical songs; his timing, deadpan and physicality are as impeccable as his vocals, and because he has lured you into a false sense of hilarity in previous numbers like Mathilde and The Bulls (in which he engages the front row of the audience), the wistful bitterness we see in his rendition of Fanette and the repressed rage he exhibits in Next is like a punch in the gut. He has great chemistry with Brent Carver in Middle Class, with both acting as bratty and smug as we all are at age 21 when we know it all.

Mr. Carver (right) is the consummate performer, his expressiveness is never so evident as it is with these complex  songs and in the intimate space of the Tom Patterson Theatre. He timidly appeals to the audience with his Bachelor’s Dance, swells us with yearning for Marieke (a song he partially sings in Dutch*) and he soothes us with My Childhood before making us weep with the same song. His physical intensity builds as he relates the tale of Amsterdam until his railing sweeps the audience utterly away.

Jewelle Blackman’s (left) throaty vocals add a dash of soul to the arrangements; she unfortunately fails to fully articulate some of her lyrics, but she certainly encapsulates the passion of them to near perfection. Her rendition of Carousel is particularly spellbinding, as is her French duet of the familiar La Moribond, with Nathalie Nadon.

Ms. Nadon (right) is a true chaneuse, she has a lightness of tone in numbers like Timid Frieda, and I Loved, but easily switches gears for the sad Sons of…, and melancholy of Old Folks. She sings Ne me quitte pas as a duet with a softly lit, single acoustic guitar (played byGeorge Meanwell), and although it is sung in French, no meaning is lost in her evocotive, almost whispered interpretation.

Instead of hiding the orchestra behind a wall or curtain, director Stafford Arima was clever to bring them into the show. They become characters themselves as they step forward like street musicians to interact with the singers. It had the added advantage of being able to adjust to the volume of the singers – who wear mics – so there is never an imbalance.

The order of the songs performed has been tweaked from the original cast recording; some have been left out and others added from the vast Brel songbook. Musical director Rick Fox has also given many new arrangements – he has slowed the tempo of some, allowing the audience to focus on the intricate lyrics.

In the second half of the show the flow of songs becomes even darker; mortality is the theme and each of the characters meets it with varying degrees of bitterness, desperation and finally soft acceptance. As they finish performing If We Only Had Love, the back wall opens, the performers walk toward the light, and the stage goes black once more. You get the sense that they knew their time was fleeting, and now that their job is done, it is time to go back from whence they came at the beginning of the show – until it is time for the next performance.

Intense, yes, but not the kind that leaves you breathless – it is the kind that leaves you wanting more. But because the characters have finished, there is never an encore, however hard the audience calls. If you want an encore, you’ll just have to go back again. Be quick – Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is only playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 25, and it is almost sold out.

(*or is it Flemish?  If you know, please let me know, below!)


  1. I've been told by one person that Marieke is sung partially in Flemish, but another person has said it's definitely Dutch. Oy vey...

  2. According to Laura Burton, pianist in Jacques Brel, Marieke is sung partly in Flemish. (Someone owes me a mint smoothie - you know who you are!) ~Robyn

  3. Flemish is essentially a dialect of Dutch so technically you are right when you said Dutch.


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