Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Jaques Brel quite well in Newburyport production

The producer, an old friend, sent me an email about "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," informing me that it is a "musical for people who don't like musicals." It was, a course, a taunt, a challenge, because I famously dislike musical theater. Even the name irritates me, reminding me of oxymoronic phrases like soft rock or utter abominations like lite beer, with its actually moronic spelling — and both constructions where the adjective renders the noun either meaningless or impotent. I like music, I like theater. I just don't like mixing them. But I took the bait because I like a good argument — and because I was intrigued by the somewhat incongruous fact that they were staging it at the Actors Studio, a venue best known for its focus on original work or edgier productions, and which, to the best of my knowledge, has never broken into song. The fact that Michael Wainstein, former executive director of the Firehouse, had returned to town after an absence of nearly a decade to get the show up and running certainly added to the production's intrigue factor. The fact that the post-show reception would be catered by River Merrimac executive chef Michael Tache did not figure into the equation at all. Critics aren't that way at all.

"So," my producer friend asked at the reception, between the brioche and mussels, "what did you think?" And I had to be brutally honest with her: "Brel" is a wonderful show— smart, funny and beautifully crafted with sharp, crisp and, at times, absolutely spell-binding performances by actors who, unbelievably, had never worked together before but seemed to click effortlessly (a testament to Wainstein's backstage efforts) and made an immediate connection with the audience. But it most certainly is not a musical or even a "bookless musical," another often-employed label, a tautology like the previously mentioned soft rock. It's a collection of songs written by Jacques Brel, a Belgian-born songwriter who hit his creative stride in the'60s as a French-language troubadour a la Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Even considered broadly, they don't approach an actual storyline, and that is the joy of the play, which premiered in 1968 and ran for five years: Freed from the drudgery of plot, these songs — almost entirely in English — live fully on their own, exploring themes of love and loss seen through a prism of despair, rage and, unconsciously, grief. The songs are brooding and bitter, funny and ironic, yet, through it all there is a sense of transcendence, a hopefulness and catharsis that is so French.

The current production, which runs through July 12 at the Actors Studio, differs in significant ways from the original, but remains true to the concept and is presented, instead, as an homage to Brel and his milieu. Traditionally the show has two male and two female roles. This show, for whatever reason, is cast with three women and one man, which puts a whole lotta spotlight on Elliot Johnston, a Seacoast actor making his Newburyport debut, who rose to the challenge and nailed some of the splashiest numbers, "The Bulls/Les Taureaux," the sadly funny, vibrantly written bleak assessment of the eternal struggle — for love, for fulfillment, for ... ever? Or equally ironically upbeat "Jackie/Les chanson de Jackie" — the clear-visioned assessment that it is possible to succeed in anything, everything, if you could be "cute cute cute in a stupid-ass way." But there were no shortages of memorable performances by a cast that has an instinctive feel for the emotional arc of the material — for the weary passion that is informed by loss and hindsight: Adrienne Lesser’s “I Loved/J’aimais,” a regretful reminiscence of a love so all-consuming at the time, so complete, whose name she no longer remembers; Jenney Dale's explosive "My Death/La Mort" and sad, nostalgic "Marieke," speaking to family, to country, to what was; Elizabeth Talbot's gritty, unpleasant and perhaps too real "Amsterdam."

But perhaps the greatest surprise of the production comes from the biggest deviation from the original production, the addition of a fifth actor, Allyn Warner Gamble, who provides historical and biographical context about Brel and his time in her role as owner of a French nightclub, and, in her two solos ("Alone/Seul" and "Fannette/La Fannette") makes a riveting, almost unnerving connection with the audience — so much so that the rest of the cast, the rest of the audience, disappears. Utterly mesmerizing, the 30-year Las Vegas stage veteran — and Newburyport resident — is obviously a witch.

The performances are fueled by spot-on performances of a three piece-band led by musical director Cheryl Lynne Stromski.

So yeah, Adair, we did enjoy the show, which most certainly was not a musical — until the finale "If We Only Have Love/Quand on n'a que lamour," which has "reprise" written all over it. Catchy tune, though. And those chocolate tortes they served just before throwing us out of the River Merrimac, simply marvelous.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" runs through July 12 at the Actors Studio, located in the Tannery, 50 Water St., Newburyport. Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. Performances are at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. on Thursday and Sunday evenings. Call 978-465-1229 for reservations and directions or buy tickets online through MKTix.com.

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