Jacques Brel Revue Reviews

In the 1970s and '80s, American productions of "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" proliferated like so many Starbucks. For a long time, it was the small-cast musical revue, showcasing songs of desire, regret and this mad whirligig called life written or co-written by the Brussels-born, Paris-honed singer-song writer.

If you never saw a good staging of "Alive and Well," or if the only Brel you know is "Seasons in the Sun," the 1974 Terry Jacks knockoff of Brel's "Le Mo-ribond," there's hope for you yet. It has arrived in the form of a new Brel revue, delivering many of the "Alive and Well" songs but with fresh, easy-breathing English translations.

Performed on the tiny No Exit Cafe stage in Rogers Park, it's a Theo Ubique Theatre Company production calling itself "A Jacques Brel Revue: Songs of Love and War."

And it is charming.

The cafe, serving drinks and dinner and desserts, accommodates 40 or 50.

Director Fred Anzevino's cast of five does most of the serving. They seem pretty good at it. More to the point, they do well by Brel. Without swinging for the fences every song, musical director and pianist Michael Miller and his performers convey a full range of romantic melancholia.

The unmiked voices resound inside the cafe, especially when the cast leads the audience in a round of: "The bourgeois/What a bunch of pigs!"

In many instances, translator Arnold Johnston's lyrics to Brel's melodies, and those to Brel's frequent co-writer Gerard Jouannest, scan better than the English-language versions heard in "Alive and Well."

The up-tempo comic number "Madeleine," with its reference to "trolley 33," is one. (It's particularly fetching to hear it here, while the red line "L" scoots by outside the cafe.) The aching waltz "Son Of" is another, sung by Jane Roy-Bachman (perfectly, va-voomy '50s in appeal) and the cast's ringer, Danielle Brothers, whose soulful alto lends a touch of gravitas to every song.

Amanda Hartley does fervent justice to "Marieke." David Heimann and Jeremy Trager complete the ensemble, and what they lack in seasoning, they make up for in vocal commitment (especially Trager).

There's something very Chicago about Brel's full-on emotionalism.

Maybe that's why this sharp little revue works as well as it does.

Michael Phillips (2005) "Jacques Brel charms Chicago". Chicago Tribune