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Jacques Brel is Alive and Well...




Stephanie Burridge






DBS Arts Centre



Quand on n'a que l'amour

Belgian singer Jacques Brel embodied existential angst. He was an anti-war campaigner, a humanitarian and a peace lover - in a sense he was Europe's counterpoint to America's Bob Dylan. Brel wrote heartfelt, hard-hitting and moving songs that reflected the political and social turmoil of the 60's and 70's - Vietnam, rebellion, youth culture and the need to change the world. Brel's French lyrics are poetic and the translation into English loses some of the wit and irony of the original French, where he incorporates interesting nuances and a play on words.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is the antithesis of a traditional piece of musical theatre. There are few song-and-dance routines, no script between the string of 28 songs, no happy endings and a stark setting - the plot is the songs and the purpose is to hear Brel's extraordinary poetry and the melodies. Producer and Artistic Director of Sing'theatre, Nathalie Ribette, wisely let the songs do the talking. Her direction was appropriate and clear, making use of stillness and tableaux. The four performers, George Chan, Emma Yong, Tony Mc Gill and Leigh Mc Donald, were strategically placed around the simple set to sing their songs. A lamppost, some stairs leading to a small balcony, a park bench, a café table for two and a circular area for the band ingeniously conjured up the feeling of a street in Paris. Ribette notes in the programme, "the show has no ambition of imitating this fascinating personality" - it was simply about presenting his songs.

The cast all gave solid performances and overall the diction was clear and the expression sincere. At times this sincerity interfered with the quality of the voices and the deep textures of the music were sometimes lost. However, each performer had their special moments. Emma Yong succeeded in bringing the audience to tears with her wonderful performance of the chillingly poignant song Old Folks, and then in making them laugh with a vivacious rendition of the quirky, Timid Frieda. She also sang the classic Ne Me Quitte Pas in French - which was most warmly welcomed by the large French contingent in the audience who were probably expecting more songs in their own language.

Tony Mc Gill's powerful presence anchored the cast and his singing of Amsterdam achieved the right melancholic tone. His duet with Leigh McDonald, Song for Old Lovers hit the spot again, and the connection between the two as they grappled to hold hands was suitably tentative and awkward. McDonald's rich voice was virtuosic in songs like Sons Of which she controlled beautifully as the tragic lyrics unfolded - at other times her voice became harsh, as in Carousel! which she belted out toward the end of the show.

Choreographer/performer George Chan added some lightness and created the right amount of dance routines to give the performance some much needed theatricality and contrast. The small band of five musicians included the talented accordion player Daniel Blayo - this gave the music an unmistakably French flair. But the decision to use an electric piano rather than an acoustic one meant that the relationship between the musicians and the singers was imbalanced: the piano simply drowned out the lyrics of many of the songs on the opening night.

The cast finished off with a rousing performance of the Brel plea for peace, If We Only Have Love - and the audience was invited to join in as an encore. Although Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris has some limitations as a piece of musical theatre, the audience warmed to the raw honesty of the lyrics matched by the strength of the well-chosen cast and the insightful direction.

"The audience warmed to the raw honesty of the lyrics matched by the strength of the well-chosen cast and the insightful direction"


Music and lyrics: Jaques Brel

Production, conception, English lyrics and additional material: Eric Blau and Mort Shuman

Producer and Artistic Director: Nathalie Ribette

Choreography: George Chan

Cast: Emma Yong, George Chan, Leigh Mc Donald and Tony Mc Gill

More Reviews by Stephanie Burridge

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.