Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris, LA

Written by:
George Alexander
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From left, Keith Barletta, Kristin Towers-Rowles and Jon Paul Burkhart in “Jacques Brel…”
Photo by Lemuel H. Thornton III

‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris’

Music and lyrics by Jacques Brel
Directed by Hallie Baran
Musical direction by Kelly Dodson
Doma Theatre Co.
Met Theatre, Los Angeles
Sept. 16-Oct. 2, 2011

Jacques Brel is still alive [in spirit, at least] but not well [he died in 1978], and living no longer in Paris, but wherever his music is being played.

At the moment, that happens to be the Met Theatre in Hollywood, where a capable cast of 10—10, count ’em, 10—singers belt out such familiar Brel songs as “Marathon,” “Madeleine,” “Timid Frieda,” “Jacky,” “Next,” “Sons of,” “Port of Amsterdam,” “Marieke,” “Funeral Tango,” “Carousel,” “If We Only Have Love” and 14 others.

Why producer Mike Abramson and director Hallie Baran feel they need 10 voices to deliver Brel’s sometimes bleak, sometimes melancholy, sometimes alienated, sometimes astringent, et cetera, et cetera, songs, I don’t know. When this revue premiered in New York City’s Village Gate, back in 1968 [and ran for four years], just four singers were more than adequate. Moreover, of the 10 Met cast members, two are—for lack of a better term—“appendages.” See below.

Still, this is about the music of the idiosyncratic Belgian, Jacques Brel. Not for him hackneyed rhymes of “June-moon,” “true-blue-you” or “please-Louise” lyrics; he was a realist who wanted you to smell, taste, see and feel his songs, not simply hear them.

Consider “Amsterdam.” It forces you to stare at garishly lipsticked and rouged faces, to smell the stale sweat of unwashed sailors, to feel the spongy asses of tired old whores, to wince at the throat-burn of raw, cheap whiskey. It shoves you into the middle of a tough harborside bar, even if you’ve never been outside of Omaha:

In the port of Amsterdam
there’s a sailor who drinks
to the health of the whores of Amsterdam
who’ve promised their love
to a thousand other men.
They’ve bargained their bodies,
and their virtue long gone,
for a few dirty coins
in the port of Amsterdam.

It’s trademark Brel.

AnnaLisa Erickson conveys that punch of “Amsterdam” very well—but halfway through, she’s suddenly joined by M.A. “Marco” Gomez who pops through an upstage curtain with a hand-held mic and growls, even howls, about those sailors and whores. Startling, yes, but puzzling; it’s his one and only appearance on stage and has no connection to the eight other performers we’ve been watching for close to an hour.

Similarly, Mary Mather’s “Timid Freida” is interrupted mid-song when a spot suddenly picks out Roxanne Schreiber, house-right, in the audience; she stands and sings—beautifully, but inexplicably—the remainder of the song. Like Gomez, she is one-and-done.

To paper over the fact that “Jacques Brel” is, after all, only a revue, Abramson and Baran conjure up a large, extended family rummaging through grandma’s cluttered attic. An old trunk, filled with photograph albums and keepsakes, reminds them of lives past and present and Brel, of course, has a song that expresses the appropriate mood.

The family consists of Erickson, identified as “grandmother,” Jon Paul Burkhart as “son,” Kristin Towers-Rowles as “daughter-in-law,” Josie Yount as “daughter-in-law’s sister,” Mather as “granddaughter,” Keith Barletta as “granddaughter’s fiancé,” Tim Miller as “brother to daughter-in-law” and Angela Todaro as “brother’s girlfriend.

The one-shot Gomez and Schreiber are presumably what? First cousins, once-removed?

At the Village Gate in New York City, where “Brel” premiered, there was neither space nor need for a set; the four performers simply did their thing, sometimes jointly, sometime solo, in the best tradition of cabaret. Why Abramson and Baran decided to add a hokey setting—which often leaves many of the cast standing idle as if in a union hiring hall—is another puzzle.

Burkhart, Miller and Barletta have strong, clear voices. Burkhart deftly tells the embarrassment and anxieties of a recruit moving along the army’s conveyor belt in “Next:”

I was still just a kid
There were a hundred like me
I followed a naked body
A naked body followed me
…next, next
I was still just a kid
When my innocence was lost
In a mobile army whorehouse
Gift of the army, free of cost
…next, next.

The four female performers are equally good. I’m particularly taken by Yount, whom I’ve seen in other plays; she’s as slim as the chances in an audition but packs one helluva lot of energy in her slender frame. Towers-Rowles captures the heartbreak of parents whose sons have grown and left home, some to war and some to—who knows?—in “Sons of”:

Sons of the great or sons unknown
All were children like your own
The same sweet smiles, the same sad tears
The cries at night, the nightmare fears
Sons of the great or sons unknown
All were children like your own…

But it is Brel’s music—and often-painful lyrics—that carries the evening. And beyond.

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