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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH, "JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS" (AND SEATTLE)

    
If you have never heard of Jacques Brel (1929-1978), you are not alone, even though this Belgian singer/songwriter became famous in the world of European popular music, a voice expressing the emotions of many in the difficult post-World War II era, and a man who has been compared to Frank Sinatra for his wide appeal. Yet, here in the United States, he was far less well-known. The demand for his deeply felt and passionately performed, sometimes lighthearted, but often introspective or cynical lyrics sung to his compositions played on guitar kept him on tour almost constantly until the mid-1960s and inspired song writers in America and elsewhere. 

The company of Jacques Brel is Alive and Wel & Living in Paris,
 a co-production presented at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre.

Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
Now through May 17, co-producers ACT—A Contemporary Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre bring you the musical revue called Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris . This is a fresh new version of the original Off-Broadway production by the same name, which opened in January 1968 at the Village Gate in Greenich Village in New York, toured the world’s major cities, and first appeared in the Pacific Northwest in 1973, at Seattle Rep. By the time of the show’s original New York debut in 1968 Brel, had not performed his music for two years and would be dead of lung cancer a decade later, at the age of 49. I wonder if he ever imagine how his work would live on. With direction and musical staging by The 5th Avenue Theatre's own Artistic Director and Executive Producer David Armstrong, in the intimate setting of ACT's Falls Theatre, it certainly does.

Cayman Ilika (center) with Louis Hobson (left) and Eric Ankrim (right) in Jacques Brel is Alive and Wel & Living in Paris,
 a co-production presented at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre.

​Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
If you go to see Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, remember that this is a revue, not a play or musical. Expect no dialog, no dancing, no plot, no named “characters” in the usual sense, and costumes are mostly normal clothing accessorized in different ways. Do expect not only great singing, but also great acting from a cast of five, three men and two women who draw from Brel’s songs—and project to the audience—deep emotions, ranging from torment to humor. Cast members are Eric Ankrim, Louis Hobson (from March 7—April 12), Cayman Ilika, Kendra Kasselbaum, Timothy MeCuen Piggee, with Matt Owen taking over for Hobson April 14-May 17.

When I took my seat on the night of the press opening, I wondered what to expect. Tom Sturge’s stage design amounts to nothing more than an arrangement of steps and platforms, backed by screens onto which photographic images are projected to create a variety of moods. It turned out to be the ultimate canvas. The spareness of the set, the images, and the lighting effects added up to perfection.

Kendra Kassebaum in Jacques Brel is Alive and Wel & Living in Paris,
a co-production presented at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre.

​Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
The evening began with a live band of outstanding musicians behind a screen at the right rear of the stage but visible—Conductor Dwight Beckmeyer on piano, Greg Fulton on guitar, Chris Monroe on percussion, and Dave Pascal on bass. It is easy to be so swept up in the singing and visual aspects of this production, that you forget that a huge portion of the enjoyment you experience is due to this band. Please do not. 

From the first moment to the last, one moving, comical, dramatic, painfully tragic, or light hearted number after another—14 songs in Act I and 12 in the Act II—captivated the audience and earned enthusiastic applause. Variety kept things interesting and the time seemed to pass too quickly. The entire show progressed without a flaw, leaving me feeling that I had witnessed the finest in local talent and professionalism, as well as the profound benefit of having these two powerhouse theaters cooperate on a production. This is their fifth such annual combined effort, and I have loved every one.

The company of Jacques Brel is Alive and Wel & Living in Paris,
 a co-production presented at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre.

Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
I highly recommend this show. Get your tickets, relax, and feel yourself swept along on a sea of music marked by waves of raw emotion and expanses of hypnotic silkiness. Every part of the journey will fill you with greater appreciation for the members of the cast and creative team, our rich local live theater scene, and of course Jacques Brel, still alive and well as long as the world remembers. Who could ask for more?

Louis Hobson in Jacques Brel is Alive and Wel & Living in Paris,
a co-production presented at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre.

​Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka