Watching "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" at Olney Theatre Center, I was reminded of a quote by Mark Twain, which I paraphrase: It's un-American, it's un-English . . . it's French.
Brel was Belgian, to be precise, but he wrote in French, and Americans -- except for his devoted cult following -- are apt to find his percussive, cynical songs about loneliness, death, lost love and war an acquired taste. In the late 1960s, however, his songs experienced a peak in popularity in this country when Eric Blau and Mort Shuman created the revue "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well, etc.," which ran for four years off-Broadway.
Now Olney's artistic director, Jim Petosa, has mounted a revised and expanded revival based on a production he first staged last year at the University of Maryland College Park.
Though Petosa's stylish revival still didn't make this critic a fan of Brel's music, it did make me a fan of the production, which features choreography by Carole Graham Lehan.
Simply put, Petosa has theatricalized a cabaret show. The difference is evident as soon as you see designer James Kronzer's stunning set, whose chief elements are a chunk of the Eiffel Tower, a cathedral-style rose window, a torn French flag, and a centrally located gilded frame on which are projected slides of mostly early-20th-century photographs, including those of the Hungarian-born photographer Brassai, who was known for his shots of Paris.
In addition, Petosa has doubled the usual four-person cast and given each member a specific persona. Alan Mingo Jr., for instance, plays a sailor; Valerie Leonard plays a streetwalker; and, most interesting from a dramatic point of view, Devron T. Young -- a Baltimore School for the Arts graduate making his Olney debut -- plays a magician who sets the action in motion.
Petosa has also eliminated all of the spoken dialogue, as well as a few songs, and he has rearranged the two dozen or so that remain. (Trying to follow the inaccurate list printed in the program will only confuse you; the theater should stuff the programs with the revised list.)
A sample of the best-realized songs will serve as a primer on Petosa's approach to Brel. "Old Folks," in which Young's magician transforms two cast members into senior citizens and places them on a bench facing a photo of two children, is one of the loveliest ensemble pieces, though it concludes with the typically gloomy Brel-ian sentiment that, in the end, we're alone.
Alfred Lakeman, who has the show's clearest, most compelling vocal delivery, has several notable solos. Two sarcastic numbers are related in that, in both, he portrays a corpse chastising those who mourn him. In "Statue," he gives voice to a bitter, fallen, reluctant war hero, and in "Funeral Tango," he criticizes the hypocritical mourners at his funeral. ("They're thinking about the price of my funeral bouquet. What they're thinking isn't nice, because now they'll have to pay.")
Occasionally, director Petosa overstates things -- trying too hard, perhaps, to coat Brel with a Brechtian patina. At the end of the cleverly staged "The Bulls," in which Leonard plays a matador with human victims, the actors portraying spectators yell, "Sarajevo!"
Similarly, a piece of scenery representing a crumbling stone pedestal, inscribed "XX Siecle" (20th century), is a bit much.
In contrast, the final number, "If We Only Have Love" (which also ended the off-Broadway production), is nice and uplifting, and its wide-open staging provides one of the show's most dramatic moments. But this is one place Petosa should have asserted himself more -- a gushy, hand-holding ending couldn't be more thematically opposed to the overall tone of his inspired, hard-edged revival.
JACQUES BREL IS WELL
What: "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; selected Thursday and Saturday matinees. Through July 16
Call: (301) 924-3400