- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

Pass me the Prozac, the absinthe, and a carton of Gauloise cigarettes.

Somebody’s singing Jacques Brel songs again.

The Gallic tang of the Belgian songwriter’s music and lyrics are tarted up like a Pigalle prostitute on Sunday morning in Olney Theatre’s heavy-handed staging of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” Director Jim Petosa gives the Liberace treatment to this normally entertaining revue of Mr. Brel’s songbook, piling on the pointless production values and the unintentionally hooty literal translations of the tunes until the whole show threatens to burst at the seams and drown the audience in “le schmaltz.”

Mr. Brel’s songs are not mindless ear candy. The lyrics talk of squalid brothels, aging, regret, unfaithful lovers and that unforgettable first dose of gonorrhea. The music is very much in that “life is wretched, let’s have a cognac” French tradition popularized by Edith Piaf — plaintive and melancholy, with traces of the music hall and the circus calliope.

This is music that sounds best played on an accordion, or with little orchestral sugaring, but embellishment runs riot in Olney’s staging, beginning with the unnecessary addition of a guide, a Parisian version of Bojangles, played by Devron T. Young.

James Kronzer’s set includes a nifty evocation of the Eiffel Tower’s filigree framework. But did it also have to include an overly busy painting-within-a-painting backdrop upon which is projected a vertigo-inducing succession of images as well as a massive representation of the stained glass windows at Notre Dame Cathedral on which the actors roll on- and offstage with Sisyphean exertion? Mr. Brel’s bittersweet songs tell stories plainly and need to be approached gently and with earthy sophistication.

The cast is meant to represent a range of different eras — from the Victorian (Christopher Yates) to the 1920s Jazz Age (Carolyn Pasquantonio as a flapper) — and social types, including a James Dean-like rebel (Matt Bailey), a belle epoque prostitute (Valerie Leonard), a Lady Bracknell figure (Channez McQuay) and an earth mother dressed like a slave (Nicole Adams). Yet all they do is add a gummy layer of over-interpretation to the simple trajectory of Mr. Brel’s lyrics. And lacking visual or emotional logic, the actors look like they just stumbled out of a Goodwill bin and were told to sing.

“My Death” is sung with tremulous poignancy by Carolyn Pasquantonio. But why the maudlin rendering of her demise, in which she appears to be swimming in a low-budget travelogue depicting the catacombs of Paris accompanied by the hand-wringing lamentations of the ensemble?

“The Desperate Ones” underlines and boldfaces the lyrics with tattered umbrellas and tightrope walker choreography that stops shy of the actors shoving their heads in the oven. The song “Brussels” features a goose-stepping chorus (Have they no shame?).

The cast struggles to keep up with the dog whistle pitch of the piece, although Mr. Yates has a rare moment of restraint with the wistful romantic ballad, “Fannette,” and Miss Leonard adds a delicate sense of good-humored ennui to “I Loved.” By the time a noose appears in the “Alone” number — boy, is it tempting. Jacques Brel may be alive and living in Paris, but this production makes you wish you were dead and buried in Pere Lachaise with Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.

*

WHAT: “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Drive, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 30.

TICKETS: $34 to $44

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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