Jaques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Gloucester (4.5 Stars)

‘Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris’ – Lyrics and Music by Jacques Brel; Adapted by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman; Directed by Eric C. Engel; Musical Direction by David McGrory; Presented by the Gloucester Stage Company at 267 East Main Street Gloucester, MA through July 6th.

Gloucester Stage Company is one of the joys of summer in New England. Founded in 1980 by Gloucester resident/playwright Israel Horovitz, the theater is celebrating it’s 35th Anniversary Season with a beautifully sung revival of one of this theatre’s most popular productions, the musical revue “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris “.

Originally produced in 1968 at NYC ‘s Village Gate, “Jacques Brel…” Is a collection of works by the Belgian born singer who, as the program notes tell us,  “wrote songs about people actively questioning their own values as well as the rising tide of conservatism around them.” With a cast of four actors and four musicians, the show celebrates Brel’s relevance and enduring passions. Translated from the French by American poet Eric Blau and lyricist Mort Shuman, the show is a blend of ballads, tangos, boleros, rock and classics. Each piece tells a story, examining themes of love, war, adventure, broken dreams, people from all classes, being young, growing old and death, but always remembering life has much humor in it.

Having seen numerous performances of the original Boston run in the late 60s as well as the GSC production in 2003, I’ve become a true Brel aficionado over the years and am happy to say that this production stands right up there with the best.

It is a totally sung revue, with no additional text to connect the songs. The connecting tissue is the composer himself, and the four singers (two men, and two women,) play archetypal characters drawn from the material, mostly set in the world of Paris in the middle of the 20th Century.

These four singers (Jennifer Ellis, Shana Dirik, Daniel Robert Sullivan and Douglas Jabara) are individually gifted soloists whose voices blend well in harmony, complimenting the songs and complicated arrangements. And all four performers get their chance to shine in solo. Sullivan has the more comic numbers, but can turn the comedy around in a stinging moment of fear (“Next”). And while his energy can sometimes be a bit too manic, how else does one convey the desire to be “Cute cute cute, in a stupid-ass way”.  Jabara’s bass solidly grounds the ensemble efforts, and he delivers both the comic and dramatic songs equally well.

Jennifer Ellis, a Gloucester veteran of ‘The Most Happy Fella’, is a soprano with a soaring voice. She has one of the more dramatic solos in “My Death”, which is stunningly simple and achingly beautiful.  And Shana Dirik’s comic and dramatic strengths, likewise, are well on display.  In “Sons Of”, one of Brel’s anti-war statements, her voice, like a pealing bell, sounds the alarm of war.

I went in as a Brel fan, and the songs did not disappoint. My heart broke, was healed, and broke all over again. Brel does that to me. He writes about living in modern times, in universal emotions and imagery.With such a limited summer run, this show is bound to be a big seller, so take my advice and make reservations now! This is one you don’t want to miss. For more info, go to: http://gloucesterstage.com/jacques-brel-is-alive-and-well-and-living-in-paris/