- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

Everyman Theatre has the late, lamented Concorde beat. With the Baltimore theater’s production of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” you can get from Washington to France in less than an hour.

The theater space has been transformed into a cabaret you might find in Paris — cafe tables and bentwood chairs, candles, and bottles of wine and beer you can purchase to imbibe during the show. At the back of the stage sits a four-piece combo consisting of a pianist, percussionist, guitarist and keyboardist.

“Jacques Brel” is a simple show, a rundown of 25 songs from the singer-songwriter whose theatrical, sometimes cynical, songs expressed a certain je ne sais quoi during the 1950s and ‘60s. His women-centered love ballads touch on exquisite states of loneliness and death and have been covered by such singers as Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Frank Sinatra.

Mr. Brel’s songs are one-act plays in themselves, so the revue does not add unnecessary narrative; between-song patter; or, thankfully, some sort of contrived framework to give forced meaning to his life or music. The songs stand alone, and rightfully so, because the music and lyrics are so emotional that any commentary might tip the show into maudlin excess.

Everyman’s production, directed with grace and maturity by Donald Hicken, also boasts a quartet of performers who can sing up a storm. Christopher Bloch, Dan Manning, Sally Martin and, especially, the rich mezzo-soprano Laura Virella (standing in for cast member Amanda Johnson) are gifted singers, but they also know how to add flourishes to the numbers without being hammy.

Many of Mr. Brel’s songs feature the hurdy-gurdy rhythms of the merry-go-round and the circus calliope, as seen in “Marathon,” a breakneck tour of Paris from the 1920s on up to the ‘60s, and “Carousel,” which is executed in revved-up waltz time.

One of the ballads, “Old Folks,” deals with aging and neglect, and the tick-tock cadences of the song make it all the more poignant, especially as delivered by Mr. Manning and Miss Virella. Mortality is also the topic of both the clear-eyed “My Death” and more comical “Funeral Tango,” in which Mr. Manning becomes a mischievous interloper at his own wake.

However, Mr. Brel is known for love.

“Madeleine” charmingly details the allure of a woman who keeps her man waiting, while “Mathilde” expresses the heady emotions one man experiences just hearing his lover’s name. “Fanette,” sung with an acute sense of loss and regret by Mr. Bloch, represents the painful side of love, as does “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”), a ballad of shameless pleading that Miss Virella gives operatic emotion.

A Washington cabaret singer of note, Miss Martin has a vibrato that lends nuanced expression to “I Loved” and the wrenching “Marieke.” Her combination of heartfelt singing and sophistication is a clever contrast to the nimble physicality and bold animation Mr. Bloch and Mr. Manning bring to the comic songs.

As a company, all four contribute immaculate harmonies and the non-cloying coziness of a true ensemble. An evening of just Mr. Brel’s songs can be a bit de trop; after a while, the world-weary lyrics touching on everything from ennui to gonorrhea become faintly ridiculous.

However, Everyman delivers the Jacques Brel songbook with such style that you can’t help but succumb to its Gallic spirit. Stop by the crepe cafe next door to Everyman on your way out, and you will have had the perfect Parisian evening.

***1/2

WHAT: “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” songs by Jacques Brel, with English lyrics and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman

WHERE: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., Baltimore

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 20.

TICKETS: $18 to $20

PHONE: 410/752-2208

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