OK, Jacques Brel isn't alive or in Paris. And unless you believe in a great beyond, you can't say he's well, either. But anyone who visits the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's season-closing show, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, is likely to be just fine.
Brel, the show's subject and muse, was the consummate entertainer, after all.
To get the right feel for this, theatergoers should know first that Jacques Brel was a real person, born in Belgium in 1929, and that he is still considered one of France's most popular singers. From Michael Bublé to Frank Sinatra, Americans have had a host of crooners to entertain us; for a time, France had pretty much just Brel. He used not only his baritone to propel his songs, explained pop culture writer Graeme Thomson in a 2009 Guardian article, but also "flailing arms and guttural exclamations."
That emotional rawness and stage presence helped enchant his musical peers: Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, Andy Williams and many others have released covers of Brel songs.
As for the show itself, "It's not traditional musical theater," says producing artistic director Scott RC Levy. Don't expect to see a tight plot or ... actually, don't expect to see a scripted play, at all.
The performance is actually made up of two sets of 12 songs, performed by four people — here, FAC vets like Halee Towne of Assassins and The Producers, and Max Ferguson of The Drowsy Chaperone and In the Next Room. "You could say that each performer shows a different side of Brel," Levy says, "and that's where the character development occurs."
In many ways, the play functions like a primer to Brel, helping to translate the beauty of his lyrics for an English-speaking audience. "[Jacques Brel] dissected Brel's songs in translations that were close in spirit to their originals, and introduced him to many who didn't have the faintest idea who he was or why they should have heard of him," writes the website Masterworks Broadway.
The show enjoyed a four year run off-Broadway in 1968, before being made into a film in 1975. That same year, it began a 522-show run in what is now the Playhouse Square in Cleveland.
"The songs in this are timeless. They're gorgeous," says Levy. "The lyrics are thoughtful, poignant, and sometimes funny. There isn't a single one that isn't engaging."
The striking colors and textures are reminiscent of Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Lovely work.