Review: 'Jacques Brel': Still alive and well and dazzling in Ashland

There is a certain Gallic sensibility that has to do with small cafes, sad love songs, wars past and present and often an accordion. Eric Blau and Mort Shuman's "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" brought that heady mix to late 1960s America. Now director Doyne Mraz and some old friends from the Los Altos Conservatory Theatre in the Bay Area have brought it to Oregon.

The venerable musical, which carries its stories of love and loss in its lyrics, opened Thursday night at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland. Although some of the material is beginning to show its age, the production dazzles.

"Jacques Brel" was touted as the first musical without a libretto, though you could just as well call it a straight musical revue. The libretto-less musical seemed a radical idea in the late 1960s when Blau and Shuman created it in English out of some of Brel's songs. It is less so now.

The intimate OSW stage adds to the cabaret-style atmosphere, right down to the graffiti-smeared backdrop ("zut" translates to "shoot!" or similar exclamations, "merde" is vulgar slang used to express annoyance, and "ette" is a suffix meaning small or female). The only thing missing is waiters carrying drinks, and the accordion.

Singers Erik Connolly, Joelle Graves, Roger Graves and Tamara Marston move about Brandon Schilling's spare stage as if moving through Brel's bittersweet, cabaret world, now in street clothes, now in evening attire. They take on roles as they sing, affectingly, of love, usually tinged with cynicism and disillusionment. Music director Laurie Anne Hunter on Yamaha keyboard and percussionist Bryan Jeffs provide accompaniment that is just right. Mraz's direction is sure-handed but never heavy-handed.

Although Brel came to embody French romantic disillusionment, he was born in Belgium in 1929. In his world, love is not only mysterious and fleeting, it is also linked to regrets, humor and a jaunty fatalism. In "I loved," Joelle Graves has forgotten her lover's name. In "Mathilde," Connolly's love has left him. In "Bachelor's Dance," Roger Graves fantasizes about love to come.

Old photos projected on the back of the stage help illuminate the songs. Shots of Hitler and Stalin mixed in with Little Orphan Annie are a tip that what's a stake is more than the heady whiff of young love. If you lived through the 1940s in Europe you have a license to write lines like, "We stand for what's right/We slaughter all evil/By dawn's early light." Other songs limn the dehumanization of a wartime whorehouse and the inexorable aging of a couple of bohemians who turn into the very sort of elders they scorned.

In this world, Death always waits like a smiling old boulevardier. "My Death" is a walk on the darker side, probably after one drink too many, late at night, in a well-lighted place. A soldier, now dead, confesses that he was bored in the war and lusted after German women. He only prayed when he had toothache — or was scared of God. The old, with their dry voices and leaden bodies, dwell where we're all headed.

There are little surprises. Roger Graves introduces us to his lost love Fanette, and when Tamara Marston later does the same, we sense a switch-hitting Fanette.

The bitterness over World War II in Brel's world easily translated into anti-war sentiment in Blau and Shuman's adaptation, which in its New York City debut ran for four years at the height of the Vietnam War. This time out, the occupation of Iraq is present implicitly, and at least once explicitly. Now as in 1968, an unpopular president pursues an unpopular war with enemies and objectives that are far from clear, and the body count goes on.

The tough stuff notwithstanding, what you take away from the show is the bittersweet beauty of the music and the vitality of the singing. Together, the singers make you feel, at least for a night, that in Brel's words you're not alone.

Share This Story