Los Angeles Theater Review: JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS (Odyssey)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on July 2, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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JACQUES IN THE BOX

I think if I had been alive and living in New York in 1968, I would have been beguiled by Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Eric Blau and Mort Shuman translated some 25 of the Belgian singer/songwriter’s lyric-driven French songs and created a four-person revue. Its vibrant mixture of joyous regret, giddy lasciviousness, and deep anti-war sentiment propelled it to smash hit status, and it has had countless productions all over the world ever since. When Brel died of lung cancer in 1978 at the age of 49, it changed nothing. Brel remained eternally alive, quite well, and happily living in Paris. He’s there now, waiting for new generations to discover him.

Brel grew up before and during World War II. He was ten in 1939, obviously too young to fight, but old enough to be profoundly influenced. In his song “Statue,” a fallen soldier comes alive and taunts some hooligans vandalizing his memorial, flaunting his own complete lack of heroism and patriotism; In “Sons Of,” a woman weeps for the dead children of mothers who will never recover from their losses; and in “Next,” a new inductee regards the draft with pointed sarcasm and genuine fear. Yet for all Brel’s exploration of war, many of his songs are about aging, from the perspective of people who were older than he would ever live to be.

His songs embrace the ugly, beautiful, chaotic mess of life, utilizing plenty of theatrical flair and emotional resonance. But are they still relevant? I absolutely think they can be. And I’m particularly attracted to the inner contradictions of the lyrics. Songs about death can be funny. Songs about happiness can be tinged with sadness. Yet for these very stylized, very of-their-moment songs to really hit you where you live, I think they need to be reimagined and newly influenced by how we live now; by the societal, cultural, and sexual complexity of our real lives. In other words, to make Jacques Brel really sing, one needs to think outside the box.

The Odyssey’s production is perfectly pleasant, but director Dan Fishbach doesn’t put even a toe outside that proverbial box. It’s a missed opportunity. He’s got some performers that are clearly up to the challenge, who are like race horses frustrated at not being able to give it their all. Anthony Lucca’s musical direction, though, is a triumph. The four-piece band is excellent, and Lucca achieves absolute balance between the arrangements and the voices. The performers’ enunciation on the tongue-twisty songs is impeccable, and it’s also a treat to hear live voices without microphones.

Michael Yapujian is exuberant and appealingly weird. He hyperflexes and contorts his elfin frame into odd shapes, sometimes curling himself into a question mark, or lunging into a boomerang. He sings well, but his real strength is his honesty. He doesn’t push for effect, so he earns his laughs in “Middle Class” and “The Bulls.” He doesn’t exactly project the virility that could make us imagine him as a great lover with many mistresses (as he sings about in a few of his songs), but we can imagine him really, really wanting to be that guy—so it works.

Much of the pathos of the evening comes from Miyuki Miyagi, which is noteworthy since she has the fewest numbers in the cast—just two or three major songs. In “Timid Frieda” she sings about a homeless older woman, and despite being young and vibrant herself, she conveys the fear and powerlessness of the character with specific, aching realism. With her contained, subtle movements, she sent chills up my spine. In some songs, like “Sons Of,” she held my attention even though she wasn’t even singing. She doesn’t pull focus, not at all, but she’s just so there, a singer and actress who seems to stay in the moment always.

I’m less enthusiastic about Susan Kohler and Marc Francoeur. Kohler has several mournful ballads, and she tends to approach them in similar ways—hitting the sadness and staying there. She also seems to be straining vocally, singing from her throat in a way that might cause serious damage as the show’s run continues. Francoeur too often resorts to mugging, and popping open his eyes as wide as possible. He makes a kewpie doll gesture on the “Cute, cute, cute in a stupid ass way” lyric in “Jackie” that ruins the song for me. It’s a number about manly bravado, lust, and being the ultimate bad boy. Francoeur is so busy futzing with costume props and making oversized gestures, that it becomes frantic and silly, instead of rough and carnal.

Sex is vital to what drives these songs, but this production is pure vanilla. I want danger, anarchy, big laughs, and profound loss. I refuse to settle for safety, symmetry, amiability, and wistfulness from a show that is a touchstone of 20th-century theater. On March 2, 1968, Clive Barnes in the New York Times welcomed Jacques Brel with open arms. He considered it “vivid, authentic, and impassioned.” That’s the experience I want to have too.

photos by Enci Box

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd in West L.A.
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
(check for additional Wed & Thurs performances)
ends on August 27, 2017
for tickets, call 310.477.2055 or visit Odyssey

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