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Like the bracing salt air of his beloved ocean, the songs of Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel (1929-78) alternately blow soft and sweet and hard and harsh. The eclectic sampling of Brel's oeuvre in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, presented tonight through May 30th in Raleigh Little Theatre's Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, has a special tang, thanks to the lively translation of Brel's French lyrics by Americans Eric Blau and Mort Shuman and RLT's savvy staging and the charismatic performances the show's four cast members.
This warmly recommended RLT production of the fondly remembered, but seldom produced, 1966 Off-Broadway musical revue is deftly directed by Haskell Fitz-Simons and cleverly choreographed by Nancy Rich. It superbly showcases the best of Jacques Brel in a series of sensitive and stylish vocal interpretations by Olive L. McKrell, Heather Powell, Alan Seales, and Don R. Smith, with frisky accompaniment by musical director Julie A. Florin (keyboards), Danny Felton (electric guitar), Nic Slaton (standup bass), and Shirazette Tinnin (percussion).
The production numbers ("Marathon," "Madeleine," "The Desperate Ones," "If We Only Have Love") provide biting comments on the cavalcade of life as observed by the multitalented M. Brel. "Marathon," for example, is a topical song that starts in the 1920s and features Europeans dancing ever more frantically as the fascists rise and fall. This mid-20th-century song's predictions of a future in which robots displace menial workers and sex tapes mesmerize the masses are all too accurate.
"Madeleine" is a cheerful little ditty about a lady who keeps her suitors waiting, waiting, waiting to go to the picture show. "The Desperate Ones" chronicles the disappointment of those who are unhappy in love, unhappy in life; and "If We Only Have Love" is a stirring anthem for those who still have hope, despite decades of contrary experience, that things will work out on the romantic front.
Heather Powell is a songbird of impressive range and variety. She contributes a wistful remembrance of a grand romance ("I Loved"), a whimsical tribute to a bashful inamorata ("Timid Frieda"), a moving meditation on "Old Folks," a nifty soft-shoe salute to Brel's hometown ("Brussels"), and a passionate paean to merry-go-rounds ("Carousel").
Olive L. McKrell cheerfully contemplates the inevitable ("My Death"), cries out for long-lost children ("Sons Of"), laments a lost love ("Marieke"), and reassures a lover ("No Love You're Not Alone").
Don R. Smith adds cynical musings on love and lies and romances torpedoed by the treachery of the other ("Alone"), ruefully recalls another girlfriend ("Mathilde"), joins with Alan Seales for two delightful duets: wry comments about "Girls and Dogs" and a scathing commentary on the "Middle Class," hams it up as a World War I (or II) veteran in "Statue" outraged by his statue's shameful neglect by the current generation, cuts up in a flamenco-flavored dance of love ("The Bulls"), and sadly remembers a summer love and all the possibilities that he squandered ("Fanette").
Alan Seales contributes a cocky "Bachelor's Dance," wishes he "could only be cute in a stupid-ass way" ("Jackie"), impresses as a heartbroken sailor come home from the sea only to find that his beloved has been unfaithful ("Amsterdam"), playfully plays the corpse in the lighthearted "Funeral Tango," and dons a towel and reenacts the indignities of his army physical ("Next").
Scenic designer Rick Young's marvelous multilevel set suggests a variety of colorful locations, from a smoky café to a deserted waterfront and all points in-between. Lighting designer Roger Bridges' artful illumination of the action skillfully accents the comic or dramatic moments of each vignette, and costume designer Sue Brace's wonderful wardrobe ranges from glad rags to just plain rags for the myriad memorable characters who magically appear for a instant, linger only for the length of a song, and then fade back into the faceless crowd — all the lonely people, all the ecstatic or despondent lovers, all the brave sons and daughters of the new Belgium and the new France — about whom Jacques Brel wrote so eloquently.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris 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 are 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].