French Roast

Twenty-nine songs by Jacques Brel add up to a galling amount of Gallicism

What was it about being alive and well in the Sixties and early Seventies? Even cavemen claimed the title, in cartoonist Johnny Hart's B.C. Is Alive and Well, published in 1969--a year in which journalist Art Buchwald was touting that The Establishment Is Alive and Well in Washington. For a few happy decades, it seemed that everybody was not simply still breathing, but could actually boast that they were thriving, from Satan (who was ...Alive and Well on Planet Earth, according to Hal Lindsey in 1972) to Horatio Alger (who was Alive and Well and Living in America in a 1971 book by David L. Goodrich).

Some phrases just climb into people's skulls and stick there, I suppose, and I am pleased to announce that, in 2001, Boredom and Irritation Is Alive and Well and Living in This Critic. Throughout the Park Square's current production, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, I felt that the show might have been better titled had it taken a page from Tom Lehrer's book and chosen to call itself Too Many Songs by Jacques Brel Although Park Square is promoting this production as a musical, more properly it is a musical revue, as there is no plot whatsoever. Jacques Brel is, instead, 29 songs by the eponymous Brussels-born singer/songwriter, presented in their entirety.

What? Not familiar with his work? You've been thwarted in your attempts to sidle up to a jukebox in a bar, select G-31 or F-12 and throatily croon along to "Les Bonbons" or "J'Arrive"? Well, you're not alone. Brel's following in the United States is small, limited mostly to Francophiles who stumbled across his recordings in college French classes and theater people who know of his songs thanks to this play (and a smaller segment of aging hippies who vaguely remember the 1975 film made from the musical). Indeed, take another look at the jukebox--it's not Jacques Brel on G-31 and F-12 at all, it's David Bowie and a track from Monsters of Rock. And that's our loss, as Brel was a first-class songwriter in the guitar-strumming, Left Bank tradition of Sixties Paris. I suspect he first came to the attention of American theater people as a result of his work adapting Man of La Mancha into French, but I sincerely doubt that La Mancha's librettist, Dale Wasserman, ever wrote anything nearly as imaginative or grotesque as Brel's "La Chanson de Jacky," in which the singer fantasizes about owning a brothel. You'd have to look to Brecht to find anything similarly gleeful in its immorality in musical theater, as these lyrics, translated by Eric Blau and Mort Schuman, reveal:

 

My name would then be handsome Jack

And I'd sell boats of opium

Whiskey that came from Twickenham

Authentic queers and phony virgins

I'd have a bank on every finger

A finger in every country.

 

I appreciate this kind of music, and Jacques Brel has done a good job of selecting a representative collection of his songs. The Park Square's cast of four--Christopher Bloch, William Gilness, Molly Sue McDonald, and Natalie Moore--all have fine singing voices, and the production has dressed them in a theater costumer's idea of Parisian chic, circa 1960 (frowzy cravats and bluntly cut, Op Art-patterned ties for the men; stockings and flower-print dresses or peasant-girl costumes for the women). Director Jon Cranney has placed them on a stage that is a set designer's idea of a Parisian bistro (it looks like the Loring Bar) and set them in motion singing Brel's songs (in translation) with spare and plaintive onstage accompaniment by piano, bass, and an occasional xylophone. This staging should be just right, yet it isn't, and I was at a loss to explain my growing boredom and irritation throughout a production that, ostensibly, was exactly what it should be.

In retrospect, I find that I am always bored and irritated at musical revues, and never certain why. But I have chewed on the subject for a while, and I think I have realized an essential failing with modern revues: Nobody knows how to direct them anymore. With no ongoing story or characters to connect the songs, each number becomes a miniature drama in and of itself, and needs to be presented in this way. Watch old episodes of television variety shows to see what I mean: Even on The Lawrence Welk Show, which developed a complex aesthetic out of being as bland as possible, every song emerged as a miniature opera, with characters collapsing into mud pits or drawing catch after catch out of the fishing hole as they sang their accordion-driven pop songs. But it has been a long time since variety shows have had any currency in this country, and our directors have simply forgotten how to stage a song so that it is a complete story in three minutes. Instead, they give the cast a few simple stage directions (which, in this production, consist mostly of pretending to drink during the more mature songs and holding dollies in the air during the more childlike songs) and otherwise just let them sing. Yes, the cast members sing well, but they are by no means great interpreters of Brel's oeuvre, and so it would behoove the production to flesh out the numbers a little more. But who has a deft enough hand to sketch in character and drama during a three-minute medley nowadays?

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