Monday, October 8, 2012

Theatre Droppings: Jacques Swell

Don't be fooled by the straw hats and jaunty expressions. This Brel spends its time investigating the darker side of the human condition. 
While in the DC branch, I popped across the river to Alexandria, to catch the critically acclaimed musical revue, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.  I have not had a positive opinion of this piece in the past.  The only other production of it I have seen was years ago, at Olney Theatre, where the four-member cast was doubled, and a giant wheel was placed on the stage as a set piece. 
This Olney production with an expanded cast left me cold.

Olney Theatre itself was large, and the show seemed to be overwhelmed.  I came away from that production with a feeling that Brel's music is cold, distant, and uninteresting, and assumed it must be better in its original language.

The current production at MetroStage has changed my mind about the piece.  There is nothing more exciting to me than to see actors standing still onstage, and telling a story. 
Nastascia Diaz knows how to deliver
les chansons.

It takes a strong performer to be able to hold an audience's interest under these simplistic circumstances, and the four actors in this show more than hold their own.  Though I am not personally acquainted with any of the four performers, I have seen all of them onstage in previous productions.  They have found a terrific showcase in Jacques Brel...

There are several interesting group numbers in the piece, but the show is primarily composed of solos, all of which showcase the cast to great advantage. 
Sam Ludwig as Tobias in
Sweeney Todd.

I've seen Sam Ludwig several times before, but he was unrecognizable underneath his substantial 1970s moptop.  He delivered strong choices in his numbers, including "Statue" and "Next".  Bayla Whitten's "Timid Frieda" was memorable, as was her second act dress, which wins the award as best costume in the show. 
Bayla Whitten and Sam Ludwig

Natascia Diaz has spent a few years becoming a bit of a headliner on DC musical stages, turning in memorable performances at Signature and here at MetroStage.  She comes off as the most international of the bunch, delivering several of her songs in French and Dutch. 
Bobby Smith

Bobby Smith has carved a substantial reputation as a strong character singer in local musicals, with an emphasis on comedic roles, but here, he displays a terrific dramatic side with "Amsterdam" and "Songs for Old Lovers."
Bobby Smith, center, is best known around town as a comic musical actor, as seen here, as Rooster in Annie. But this Jacques Brel displays his dramatic chops.
You've never heard of any of these songs, have you?  Neither have I;  Jacques Brel himself became internationally known on the strength of only one smash, "If We Only Have Love," which is delivered here as the show's grand finale. Our composer is one of those folks who is internationally known on the basis of a large catalogue of mostly unknown works.   
Composer Jacques Brel recorded his own
songs in French, but his music attracted
singers as diverse as Ray Charles, John Denver,
Frank Sinatra, and the Kingston Trio.

Brel's music has a decidedly pessimistic slant;  judging from the almost 30 songs in this show, he never met a disappointment which he could not put to music.  There are very, very few moments of uplifting optimism in Jacques Brel..., which probably reflected his own view of the world.  According to the program notes, Brel finally gave up on modern life and retired to a tropical island, where he died in 1978 at the age of 49.

MetroStage's promos are fooling
you. Their show displays few smiling

Thanks to fine productions such as this, though, his music will live on, particularly among actors who can tell a story of depth while singing.  MetroStage's cast meets this challenge.