A review of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well,” directed by David Armstrong at ACT Theatre.
Unlike the title of the enduring musical revue that just opened at ACT Theatre, Jacques Brel is not alive and well and living in Paris.
But the sardonic, wise and intensely emotive songs of this influential Belgian troubadour still ring in the air, thanks in part to the cabaret-style Off Broadway show that introduced Brel to many American listeners in 1968, a decade before his untimely death at age 49.
For their annual coproduction, ACT and the 5th Avenue Theatre are gifting us with a splendid revival of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” David Armstrong’s graceful staging features a capable five-piece combo backing a quintet of Seattle’s finest actor-singers, who pour their hearts into Brel’s timeless musical ruminations on l’amour, la vie, le mort and la guerre.
‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’
A coproduction of the 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre, through May 17 at ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle; $15-$74 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
Brel was part of the French-language art-song movement that reached its peak of international popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, led by such revered performers as Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand.
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Brel too was beloved in his adopted home of Paris, and around the globe. But the riveting performer and prolific songwriter was an individualist, whose ouevre ranges from the rhapsodically romantic to the caustically political.
A born storyteller, his odes are often compressed mini-dramas — which is why the show soars on the songs alone, without additional scripting.
Bien sûr, Brel often mused in a world-weary but uncynical fashion on the rapture and agony of love. But he also addressed the madness and waste of war — both world wars, and the French and U.S. military wars in Vietnam.
Brel’s pacifist views are well-represented in this well-paced assortment of more than 20 songs, deftly translated from French and Dutch into English by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman.
There is the enduring “Sons Of … ,” a paean to the individual humanity of the war dead (“Sons of the great or sons unknown/All were children like your own”), performed with piercing, waltztime anguish by Cayman Ilika.
Another is Louis Hobson’s fierce rendition of “Statue,” in which a stone soldier on a monument comes alive to bitterly repudiate standard notions of heroism in battle.
There are also less biting examples of Brel’s wit on display. Comical tunes, sung with particular verve by the cavorting Eric Ankrim and commanding baritone Timothy McCuen Piggee, satirize Belgian ditties of the Teens and ’20s, critique a funeral from the corpse’s viewpoint and mock the affectations of the European bourgeoisie.
Best known on these shores are Brel’s fever-grade ballads about love’s vagaries, widely covered by artists from Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra to David Bowie.
Ilika applies her silky alto and potent expressiveness to “No Love, You’re Not Alone,” a haunting entreaty to a lover on the edge (of madness? suicide?).
The yearning hymn “Ne me quitte pas” (which spawned the American standard “If You Go Away”) is a stirring vehicle for Kendra Kassebaum, and said to echo Brel’s despair after his pregnant mistress dumped him. And the beautifully harmonized ensemble finale, “If We Only Have Love,” is in the spirit of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
A banquet of Brel is a spread so rich, it could clog the arteries with raw emotion.
But the revue, and this version, are so artfully composed you leave the theater sated, but not bogged down.
Credit is due to Armstrong, who choreographed the piece so fluidly on a simple set that the movement seems to emerge organically from the performers. Scenic designer Tom Sturge is also responsible for the palette of lighting effects and projections that enhance the mood of each musical moment.
Note: This article was published and corrected on Monday, March 16, 2015. The song “Sons of … ” was performed by Cayman Ilika. In the original version of the review, the song title and name of the performer was misstated.