These are brilliant songs. They're wonderfully performed at the Theatre Cafe by four singers and three musicians. And that's all you need for an evening of pleasure and insight -- along with a glass of wine, a table with a white cloth, and a single red rose for your hair or your buttonhole -- which, if you're lucky, might even be provided by a cast member.
I had seen Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris many years before attending this production, but it must not have been a skilled performance, because I remember nothing about it. As a result, I wasn't prepared for the music. The evening starts with "Marathon," a fast, infectiously rhythmic number that whirls us through the twentieth century -- from the bathtub gin of the '20s to the Depression, from World War II to contemporary space travel -- and must be fiendishly difficult to sing. The lyrics evoke several of the evening's primary themes.
Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer-songwriter whose reputation took flight in the 1950s and '60s. His songs influenced, among others, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Sting and Bob Dylan, and they have been sung by such diverse artists as Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone. They're verbally and musically complex, sentimental and cynical, worldly wise and world-weary, celebratory, funny. Has anyone since Gilbert and Sullivan fit words and music together so cleverly? (I'm assuming that the translation, by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, is true to the original.) And has the world's seamy underside been so powerfully expressed in music since Brecht-Weill?
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
Presented by the Theatre Cafe in an open-ended run, 303-893-4100
Brel's songs alternately idealize and denigrate women. The astonishing "Mathilda" tells of a relationship in which love and hate can scarcely be separated; you fear for the returning woman's safety even as you absorb the man's passion for her. Paul Curran gives every facet of this song its due. Then there's "Madeleine," in which a man (Paul Page) waits for a woman who is clearly never going to come: "Madeleine's a Christmas tree/She's America to me."
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Like "Madeleine," almost all of the evening's celebrations eventually falter. In "Brussels," we're exhorted in the jolliest tones possible to "put on your spats and your high-buttoned shoes/Get on the tram, get the gossip and news." But World War I is on its way, and soon the tram will jolt to a stop. The words and rhythm of "Carousel" are so purely pleasurable that you find yourself hoping the song will go on forever. But it speeds into incoherence and sputters out.
Brel sings of the dark side of life, of greed, lust, rank smells, human perfidy and the sorrows of aging. He is acutely aware of mortality. He derides hypocrisy and rages against war. "The Bulls" sketches the scene at a bullfight, where adolescent boys feel like heroes and plain girls like beauties. As they die, the bulls dream of a hell for the matadors: "Or perhaps with their last breaths/Would not they pardon us their deaths/ Knowing what we did at/Carthage -- olé! -- Waterloo -- olé! -- Verdun -- olé!/Stalingrad -- olé! -- Iwo Jima -- olé! -- Hiroshima -- olé! -- Saigon!" To which the Denver cast adds: "Baghdad."
But there is tenderness, redemption and giddy pleasure here as well, and this Jacques Brel, directed by Donald Berlin, is an exhilarating experience. The musicians, Wendy Wheaton, Kurt Ochsner and conductor Richard Shore, are first-rate. You can get an idea of the kind of light, clean, fast-flowing sound they provide from their instruments: keyboards, a piano, a vibraphone. The four singers excel individually and also harmonize well together. Paul Page brings power to "The Bulls" and humor to "Funeral Tango." Paul Curran is cutely funny in "Jackie" and horrifies us appropriately with "Next." Karen LaMoureaux is a very appealing performer. She's both sophisticated and vulnerable, and there's something beautifully clear and precise in the way she performs. Pencil-thin, eyebrows arched, every movement carefully posed, down to the smallest finger and the arch of a foot, Erica Sarzin-Borrillo is a unique stage presence, lacquered and artificial. But at her very core, there is a reservoir of passion. She gets two of the evening's most powerful songs, "Old Folks" and "Marieke," one immediately following the other, and as she sings, you come close to drowning in the feeling she evokes.
So put on your spats and your high-button shoes. This is everything cabaret should be.