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Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

Jordan Wright
September 8, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Bobby Smith, Sam Ludwig, Bayla Whitten, Natascia Diaz - Photo credit: Christopher Banks

Bobby Smith, Sam Ludwig, Bayla Whitten, Natascia Diaz – Photo credit: Christopher Banks

Poets and thinkers do very well during times of political and social upheaval and Jacques Brel was no exception. Born in war-torn Belgium in 1929 he threw off the constraints of the bourgeoisie to become a songwriter whose emotionally charged songs catapulted him to worldwide success.  For a European musician to transition to the American market is rare indeed.  Very few do.  Iconic singers Charles Aznavour, Genevieve and Edith Piaf, and virtuosos like Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt immediately come to mind.  But for a composer making records in France it is nearly unheard of.  No French record company enjoys US distribution and artists who sell millions of records in Europe, Africa and Asia, are unknown here.

Brel was one of the lucky ones when in 1957 American Nat Shapiro, Director of International A & R for Columbia Records, heard “Quand On a Que L’Amour”.  Over the following years his music would be covered by every singer worth his or her pipes – Frank Sinatra, Gilbert Becaud and Ray Charles turned his songs to gold.  Brel’s music appealed to singers for its powerful lyrics and unusual constructs, but to an audience hungry for lyrics that transcended time and place and addressed the universal human condition.

Natascia Diaz - Photo Credit Christopher Banks

Natascia Diaz – Photo Credit Christopher Banks

Carolyn Griffin, Producing Artistic Director of MetroStage, has brought in the big guns for Jacque Brel Is Alive and Living in Paris, not least of all the incomparable Natascia Diaz, who triumphed in the 2006 New York revival and subsequent cast recording.

Twenty-eight of Brel’s songs depicting love, tragedy, anti-war themes, aging, irony, fantasy and hope, are delivered by four singers whose voices capture the fierce emotionality of the lyrics and turn the musical into an electrifying evening of raw passion and soaring vocals.  Diaz delivers climactic moments in “Ne Me Quitte Pas”(It’s American version was “If You Go Away”.), the spellbinding “Old Folks”, and “Marieke” in a performance that ranges from spine tingling to meltingly tender.  Bobby Smith, whose Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include the Original Cast of Forever Plaid and Crazy for You, and is no stranger to MetroStage, is a heart-winner whose snappy Fosse-like moves create an element of cool retro Rat Pack sophistication in “Jackie”, and the grim portrait of a sailor’s life in “Amsterdam”.   Sam Ludwig, a leading local performer and MetroStage veteran, brings youthful snap and sex appeal to “Next” a song about the loss of virginity in a whorehouse.  And newcomer, Bayla Whitten, as the ingénue, proves she can croon with the best of them in “Sons Of” and the tragic all-cast number, “Timid Frieda”.

Choreographer, Matt Gardiner, also the Associate Artistic Director at Signature Theatre, shows his versatility in creating multiple vignettes without props on a simple set, while pianist Jenny Cartney’s musical direction of the three-piece band is masterful.

At MetroStage through October 21, 2012-1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information call 800 494-8497 or visit boxofficetickets.com.  www.metrostage.org.

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