Jacques Brel, no stranger to mordant irony, would probably appreciate that the revue proclaiming him alive and well and living in Paris continues on, though he died in 1978 at the age of 49. Certainly the Belgian composer encapsulated by the American team of Eric Blau and Mort Shuman in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris would appreciate the revival of the once-ubiquitous compendium of his songs thatís on view at Gloucester Stage Company. Put into a Parisian The Iceman Cometh milieu by director Scott Edmiston and sung with skill and conviction by a quartet of Boston performers, the show is so exhilarating that it just might bring Brel back to life, if not in the flesh at least in theatrical form.
As anyone who was around in the late 1960s and early 1970s will attest, Jacques Brel, which ran for 1847 performances at New Yorkís Village Gate and enjoyed an only slightly shorter haul at Bostonís Charles Playhouse, was once almost inescapable. But despite a couple of New York revivals of the 1968 hit and a 1995 London outing, it hasnít turned up in these parts in ages. When we might have thrilled to Brelís propulsive contemplations of loneliness, heartbreak, aging, and death, weíve been living on Nunsense.
There are, of course, Jacques Brel detractors, and there were even in its heyday. New York Magazine critic John Simon wrote in 1972 that Brelís " tunes achingly lack melody and inventiveness, and try to make up for it with brazen iteration of phrases and monomaniacal propulsion, as if dynamics were all and the power drill as musical an instrument as any. " Itís true that thereís a relentlessness to Brelís ditties ó thatís part of the dramatic package, along with the wit and rue and " melt all the guns " fervency. And the songs, which are sometimes compared to Kurt Weillís, are nothing if not dramatic. Moreover, though there is something in their jaunty defiance and tender desperation that recalls Paris after World War II or America in the era of Vietnam, theyíve proved enduring. Over the years, Brel has been covered by artists from Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone to Judy Collins, David Bowie, and Dionne Warwick. (Never mind that he more or less retired from performing his own work to star in the French production of Man of La Mancha and act in films.)
In Gloucester, Edmiston places the showís quartet of singers (backed by an able trio led by Todd Gordon) in a near-empty bar that, thanks to set designer Janie Howland and scene painter Everett OíNeil, has the Impressionist feel of a slightly seedy Paris boîte. When the singers are not on their stools front and center, they lurk or linger in the background, separate, steeped in melancholy, staring into a couple of fingers of amber liquid in a glass. Although many of the numbers, including the giddy " Carousel " and the high-stepping paean to the " Brussels " of Brelís youth, have the buoyancy of circus music, the atmosphere underlines the melancholy at the bottom of songs like " The Desperate Ones. "
Leigh Barrett, who played obsessive plain-jane Fosca in SpeakEasy Stageís production of Stephen Sondheimís Passion and the Beggar Woman in the New Rep staging of Sondheimís Sweeney Todd, proves equally adroit here, gotten up in red ruffles and clear-eyed, creamy-toned regret. She brings the house, as well as the first act, down forging her lush, determined way through the whirling melody and antiwar sentiment of " Sons of . . . " Drew Poling, too, boasts a big sound to go with the all-purpose working-class-French wear designer Gail Astrid Buckley hangs on him, including beret and oversized belt. Whether thundering the sailorsí paean to the whores of " Amsterdam, " menacingly welcoming back " Mathilde, " or losing himself in sorrowful reverie for " Fanette, " heís a compelling singer/actor.
The younger pair of performers are likewise talented, though a dapper-looking Eric Rubbe isnít as good a singer as the others and a cinched, smoldering Caroline deLima needs to rein in her face. Rubbe, a Blue Man on leave, proves physically agile, and he acts his way through his songs with panache, whether heís spryly imagining his final exit in " Funeral Tango " or wishing he could be " for one little hour cute in a stupid-ass way " on " Jackie. " DeLima displays a lovely voice on the sad-pretty " Old Folks " and acts " Timid Frieda " with grace, but she sometimes pushes her voice and misses the line between stylization and overacting. Small missteps on a musical-theater journey well worth the trip to Gloucester ó which youíll swear is a block from the Seine.