From May 14 to May 30, Raleigh Little Theatre will present Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in its Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. Conceived by two Americans, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, this marvelous 1966 Off-Broadway musical revue showcases the greatest hits of the celebrated Brussels, Belgium-born singer and songwriter. (Blau and Shuman jointly translated Brel's lyrics into English and added material to ease the transition from song to song.)
"I have always been a fan of this wonderful revue of the music of Jacques Brel," confesses long-time RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons. "I was fortunate enough to see a performance in its original run at The Village Gate in New York City way back in the early 1970s."
Jacques Brel (1929-78) was a troubadour for his times and a leading singer-songwriter-poet of his generation and the French language. His expressive lyrics alternately caress and lacerate his listeners.
Brel started out singing in smoky cafes, he developed a fanatical following, and he branched out into other arts, such as filmmaking. He contracted lung cancer and died in 1978 in Tahiti. His grave is near the grave of legendary French Impressionist painter, sculptor, and printmaker Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Like Gauguin, Brel is famous for the vivid portraits that he paints — word portraits, in this case.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris made its New York debut Off Broadway at The Village Gate on January 22, 1966. It ran for 1,847 performances. The musical made its London debut at the Duchess Theatre in November 1968, but only ran for 41 performances.
The French/Canadian motion-picture version of Jacques Brel, directed by Denis Héroux and adapted for the screen by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, premiered in 1975. It starred Elly Stone as the Lady With Shopping Bag, Mort Shuman as the Taxi Driver, Joe Masiell as Marine, and Jacques Brel as Himself.
Haskell Fitz-Simons says, "[Jacques Brel] is a revue comprised of 25 of M. Brel's unique and compelling songs. There is no 'plot,' as such, to the evening as a whole. Rather, the play presents a kaleidoscope of musical life experiences that cover all the human emotions and more.
"Each song creates a universe all its own that consistently startles with its daring, candor, and insight," Fitz-Simons claims. "The sheer musical poetry of each song supports many layers of interpretation. The pointed, passionate, and profound songs of Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel come to life in this intense musical experience. Brel's legendary romance, humor, and moral conviction are evoked simply and directly, with four singing actors (Olive McKrell, Heather M. Powell, Alan Seales, and Don R. Smith) and four musicians."
Fitz-Simons says, "Each of the 25 songs that make up this revue is like a one-act play: the characterizations are intense and finely drawn. Brel has a unique way of juxtaposing his beautiful melodic material with often very serious subject matter.
"Because M. Brel's poetic language is so rich and open to a multitude of layers of interpretation," Fitz-Simons declares, "it has sometimes proved to be a challenge to find a common ground or image that will give the audience a window into Brel's very personal and rarified world."
That is a challenge that director Haskell Fitz-Simons, choreographer Nancy Rich, musical director Julie Florin, scenic designer Rick Young, lighting designer Roger Bridges, and costume designer Sue Brace eagerly embrace.
Fitz-Simons says, "The show's setting is a sort of collage of architecture and styles — images of Paris, Brel's adoptive home — which provide appropriate backdrops for the varied songs in the revue. The lighting encompasses the various 'feels' found in the show — from starkly dramatic, to bright and sunny, to the elegantly 'modeled.'
"The actors are costumed in carefully chosen 'casual-dress' outfits that are appropriate for the various characters they create over the course of the evening," explains Haskell Fitz-Simons. "Occasionally, a character will add a costume piece that might help delineate a specific character."
According to the Fondation Jacques Brel, "Jacques Brel's life was a great adventure. He lived intensely, following his feelings, his rebellions and his passions. During a film or a song, his trajectory cut across myths which still hold true today, such as success, adventure, friendship, dreams.... Brought up in a bourgeois family, Jacques Brel was respectively an eccentric, author, composer, performer, pilot, navigator, actor, director, brother, husband, father to three daughters, friend for a day or forever to an ever-loyal public. When Jacques Brel left us, it was as though he took with him a little of the potential that lies dormant in each of us."
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris Friday-Saturday, May 14-15, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 16, at 3 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, May 20-22 and 27-29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 23 and 30, at 3 p.m. in RLT's Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($11 students). 919/821-3111. Note: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices available for all shows. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/jacques.htm [inactive 6/04]. Internet Movie Database (1975 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0121411/. Fondation Jacques Brel (in English): http://www.jacquesbrel.be/index03UK.htm [inactive 8/04].