Alive and very well indeed
Having enjoyed its original off Broadway premiere in 1968, the almost 50-year-old “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” has since gone on to enjoy international renown, becoming something of a cult classic with mainstream appeal. Indeed, it’s said that David Bowie listed the cast recording of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” amongst his top twenty-five, all-time favourite albums. More theatre with music than musical theatre, this musical showcase of Belgian singer Jacques Brel features music by Brel himself, along with English translations of his lyrics, a loose narrative and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. A generous slice of serious fun, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” is wonderfully playful, seriously charming and absolutely delightful.
With barely a breath between each number, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” presents all things Brel through his humourous, thoughtful and often touching songs. Like strolling through a gallery, or flipping through an old photograph album, individual moments come, linger awhile, then go, cumulatively gathering to craft a rich and unique experience informed by, but larger than, its often incredible, individual parts.
With an almost vaudevillian panache at times, The Gate Theatre’s current production of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” shows a strong affinity for the variety show or the music hall, built around a heavy helping of cleaned up cabaret. All good, clean fun, there’s an almost dated sense of innocence at times that borders on nostalgia. Yet brimming underneath are some painful, poignant and often hilarious truths that transcend their potential datedness, never more so than in a wonderful rendition of "Old Folks,” or the excellent “The Bulls.” If the original “The Bulls” referenced the then current political situation in Saigon, this latest version speaks to Aleppo, unnervingly reminding all that it’s not all about escapism. There are some serious stings to be found in these musical tales.
Director Alan Stanford wisely lets Brel’s songs do most of the heavy lifting, but he frames it all so as to allow each song stand uniquely alone while informing the whole. With more posturing and posing than can be found at a Parisian poetry recital, its clear, physical vocabulary enriches and interlinks the overall experience. Set and costume designs by Alyson Cummins are outstanding, with her cleverly constructed set both suggesting Parisian Left Bank decadence and decay, as well as appearing to almost flawlessly meld with the floor space of the theatre itself, deepening both the space and its sense of intimacy. Pockets of light and shadow allow its quartet of singers, performing with a quartet of live musicians onstage, move in and out of temporary spaces, cleverly realised through James McConnell's excellent lighting design. The end result is wonderfully vibrant, with an almost operatic quality to it, with “La Boheme” never being too far from the imagination.
Ultimately, it’s all about the music, which is superb throughout. Paul Byrne on percussion, Neville Lloyd on bass, Dave Whyte on guitar and Musical Director, Cathal Synnott on keyboards, all playing live, help lend a smoky, jazz bar vibe to proceedings. Vocally, the quartet of Risteárd Cooper, Rory Nolan, Karen McCartney and Stephanie McKeon all feed into this. If, on occasion, Cooper seems a little less comfortable with the lower register, when he hits form, as in “Amsterdam,” he is a joy to listen to. As is Rory Nolan, whose “Batchelor's Dance” is particularly memorable. Karen McCartney delivers beautifully throughout, most notable with “My Death,” as does Stephanie McKeon, making her Gate debut, being both a delight and a revelation, whose highlights include excellent versions of “Carousel” and “I Loved.”
If something of an unashamed, kitsch cabaret at times, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” is light on the risqué and heavy on the charm, in a seriously good production that never takes itself too seriously. Delightfully cute in a stupid ass way, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” overflows with joie de vivre. One might consider it a guilty pleasure. Guilty or not, it's most certainly a pleasure. A pleasure well worth indulging in.
“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” runs at The Gate Theatre until February 25th
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre