Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

Photo Credit:  The Colorado Springs Fine Art Center

Production Conception, English Lyrics by:   Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
VenueColorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Running Time:  2 hours (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance:  Saturday, June 22, 2013

Jacques Brel, for those unfamiliar with his work, was a Belgian singer-songwriter and actor whose music and films were popular in the 1950's through the 1970's.  His popularity started in Belgium and France, but eventually spread across the world.  He was known for his thoughtful, poetic lyrics, and, in some ways, was comparable to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is an entertaining, and at times outstanding, rendition of Brel's moods and music.  The lyrics have been translated from the original French into English, so there's no language barrier whatsoever in this production.
The four person ensemble cast is strong; each has a marvelous singing voice.  They bring Brel's music to life with all the appropriate attitudes:  poetic, introspective, plaintive, sensitive, and at times a little naughty.
Max Ferguson's performance of Amsterdam (Brel original here) at the end of the first act was a showstopper. Had it not been just before intermission, Ferguson's performance would have literally stopped the show anyway for prolonged applause.  Ferguson put his entire body and soul into the melancholy story of sailors on leave in Amsterdam.  Amsterdam is one of Brel's signature songs; some very successful artists have covered it, including David Bowie, John Denver, and Rod McKuen.  Ferguson works Amsterdam to an explosive crescendo, taking no back seat to the likes of Bowie, Denver or McKuen.  
Ferguson and Alejandro Roldan combined for Girls and Dogs, which was easily the funniest number of the night.  Brel doesn't really prefer dogs to girls, but it's obvious that a girl friend broke his heart:
The girls
Will treat you like trash
Or let you be brash
It depends on your cash
But the dogs
Don't depend on a thing
They just lick your face
When they see it end
Oh, the dogs
Don't depend on a thing
And maybe that's why
They're man's best friend

As expected, though, the script saves the best for last; the ensemble closes with two Brel tunes (Carousel and If We Only Have Love) that leave the audience begging for more.
Carousel (Brel original here), done with precision choreography, takes the audience for a spin on a carousel at the carnival:
We're on a carousel
A crazy carousel
Carnivals and cotton candy
Carousels and calliopes
Kewpie-dolls with painted faces
Tricky shell games and missing peas
Merry-go-rounds quickly turning
Quickly turning for you and me
And the whole world madly turning
Turning, turning 'till you can't see

The ensemble delivers a delightful, wonderful recreation of the carnival, the mood, and the ride.  Carousel is a  piece of wonderful music, brilliant choreography, and amazing harmony.  It is, all by itself, worth the price of admission.
The finale, If We Only Have Love (Brel original here), is haunting and oddly contemporary:
If we only have love
We can melt all the guns
And then give the new world
To our daughters and sons

Listening to the lyrics, I was immediately transported to John Lennon's Imagine
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace... 

Brel was ahead of his time.  The list of those who have been influenced by Brel is extensive: 
Photo Credit:  Centerblog
John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Cindy Lauper, Rod McKuen, and Frank Sinatra, to name only a few.  The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center production deftly demonstrates why he was so influential.
Still, I felt somewhat conflicted about the performance.  I found the script lacking because, actually, there is no real script.  The entire performance is Brel's music.  There is no narration, no context, no story line to tie it all together.  A minimal story line for musicals that are, in essence, extended concerts, is common.  Abba's Mama Mia, The Who's Tommy, Forever Plaid, The Four Seasons Jersey Boys all have a story line to tie the music together. 
I suspect the story line here is nonexistent because Brel would have wanted the music to stand alone on its merits, and it does.  But without some context, the audience it appeals to is largely Brel's fans.  Thirty-five years after his death, that's a pretty small group.  Some information (on stage, not just in the program) about his life, his music, his poetry, and his success would be helpful for those born after 1970.

The set is marvelous.  It has the look and the feel of a real jazz nightclub.  The Musicians are excellent; do not miss their entrance at the beginning of the second act.
Photo Credits:  The Colorado Springs Fine Art Center and Centerblog.
This is a family show for tweens and up, although the younger folks in that group may find it boring compared to Lady Gaga or Kanye West.  
For pre-show dining, try Cafe 36 at the Fine Arts Center.  They do a special menu for each production.  The menu for Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris features some excellent French cuisine selections.

Director/Choregrapher:  Nathan Halvorson  
Scenic Design:  Christopher L. Sheley
Lighting Design:  Holly Ann Rawls
Costumer Design:  Janson Fangio
Sound Design:  Christian Medovich
Musical Director:  Ian Ferguson
Costume Designer:  Janson Fangio

Cast (Ensemble):
Lacey Connell
Alejandro Roldan
Max Ferguson
Halee Towne

The Musicians:

Piano/Conductor:  Ian Ferguson

Percussion:  Josh Birkhimer

Bass:  Jay Hahn

Guitar:  Alan Joseph.

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