On the opening night of the Fine Arts Center's "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," a woman in line for her ticket leaned in close to her male escort.
"I've never even heard of this musical, and who," she asks, glancing around at the crowd, "is Jack Brill?"
Hmmmm. The comment underscores the risk taken for the show in a record-breaking season of ticket sales.
But Scott RC Levy, the FAC's producing artistic director and director of performing arts, is comfortable mixing up his "Christmas Stories" and "Gypsies" with "Other Desert Cities" or "Jacques Brel" - even if the latter group might, on the face of it, test your trust in Levy's programming smarts.
Happily, "Jacques Brel," which was directed and choreographed by Nathan Halvorson, more than pulls it off with terrific dancing, exquisite imagery and largely excellent performances. And while familiar issues with acoustics marred some songs, this production delivers an evening of unqualified joy; raw, quivering, breathless yearning; youthful grandiosity; and political commentary that is as pertinent today as it was 45 years ago.
Flemish with ties to France, Brel's renown in America has faded since "Jacques Brel" exploded on Off-Broadway in 1968 and in 1972,on Broadway proper. Still, his intelligent lyrics and sometimes jaunty compositions easily conjure the contradictions of his time - and it's especially evident in "Marathon," the first piece of the roughly two-hour evening of theater. Against a carnival beat, cartoonish characters and ever-faster pacing, Lacey Connell, Max Ferguson, Alejandro Roldan and Halee Towne sing of a world mindlessly tearing itself to pieces.
We must dance because the Thirties scream
The Thirties scream because the Horsemen ride
Orphan Annie lives, Daddy Warbucks dies
Bread lines, shanty towns, Frankenstein's bride
Adolf Hitler and the Siegfried follies
Joseph Stalin and a bag full of jollies
Perhaps because of the dense content and the revue format, Brel bookended some of the 26 tunes with pleasant, if ultimately unneeded dialogue. The reoccurring themes and general tone do the heavy lifting, creating the profound sense of unity.
Great fodder, but trifecta of great work laid the ground work for "Jacques Brel's" success.
I don't always mention lighting in reviews: In many cases, if it's effective, I shouldn't really notice it. Holly Anne Rawls' work here, though, was not only beautiful, it also created a kind of strong, poetic continuity from vignette to vignette.
Christopher L. Sheley is an old hand at designing sets that quickly bridge the real and fictional. And here, the ruined French nightclub washed with Rawls' lighting made for a malleable space just real enough to believe.
Finally, the little band directed by Ian Ferguson certainly looked the part of French bistro musicians. More important, they mastered the often quirky sound and vertiginous pacing that is recognizably Brel.
None of that would make a bit of sense if the performances weren't largely terrific.
Ferguson was charming in his last FAC outing as the romantic lead in "The Drowsy Chaperone." Here, though, Ferguson sinks his teeth into "Jacques Brel" with a fierceness I've never seen in his work. Although his amplified voice sometimes sounded like it was coming from a tin can, Ferguson made the ideal mannequin for Brel's imaginings, including the cartoonish aspects that appear in "Madeleine," "Jackie" and "Funeral Tango." More impressive, though, was his ability to belt Brel's anthems, such as "Amsterdam" and "Next." Not only does his voice easily navigate Brel's challenging score, Ferguson also injected the desperation, pain and disgust that drive these songs.
Towne is just as confident with the vocal challenges of "Jacques Brel." And like Ferguson, is both comedian and dramatic actor. You can't help but be struck by the vocal control she demonstrates in pieces like "Sons of-" and "Old Folks" (a song that drew chuckles from the mostly over-60 audience) and her astonishing enunciation, especially evident in the crazy, lurching pace of "Carousel."
Roldan is equally adept. His voice is powerful or seductively silky, whichever is required. His "Fanette" and "Alone," both delicately sentimental, were as moving as "Statue" was funny and sad. I hope to see him in more lead roles in the future.
Connell projected a lovely presence and was particularly convincing as a ’20s flapper. Her vocals were good, although not quite to standards set by her fellow performers. Most disappointingly, her sometimes nasal intonation made the complex lyrics difficult to understand. And, at times, Connell sounded like she was straining for a full-throated delivery in higher registers. Her clear-as-a-bell performance of “Marieke,” which is in Flemish, was easily her best moment.
Finally, I must mention Halvorson's terrific choreography - and by that I mean both dancing and general movement in each song. The dancing is delicious and everyone shines. The quiet, dancelike blocking, though, is surprisingly potent as a mood and place setter. Without it, this production would be much poorer. Kudos.
"JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS"
Playwright: Music by Jacques Brel. Based on lyrics and commentary by Brel. Additional material by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau.
Director and choreographer: Nathan Halvorson
Cast: Halee Towne, Max Ferguson, Lacey Connell and Alejandro Roldan
Running time: Two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through June 30
Where: Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Tickets: $27-$37; 633-5583, csfineartscenter.org