Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel never shied away from social and political commentary in his well-known lyrics, but he also knew how to write a very listenable tune. Metro Stage does well with staying true to Brel’s persuasive musical and lyrical voice in its current production of the Off-Broadway musical revue, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and exposing his music to a new generation. The overall success of this minimalistic production is largely due to the strong cast and band.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is not a plot-driven musical, but rather a collection of Jacques Brel’s songs, which explore romance (the good, the bad, and the ugly), war, and other socio-political issues of his day. Though originally conceived decades ago by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman (production concept, English lyrics, and additional material), this gem of a musical still has relevance in today’s society. Without a discernible plot, the singer-actors (and director) must rely on song interpretation to convey Brel’s timeless social commentary, but under the direction of Serge Seiden, Natascia Diaz, Sam Ludwig, Bobby Smith, and Bayla Whitten largely excel at this somewhat daunting task.
Natascia Diaz, who performed in the 2006 Off-Broadway revival of this piece, demonstrates her fierce vocal talent and attention-grabbing performance style throughout the production. Equally capable of strong, yet purposeful belting, and softer, tender singing, she has many shining moments, but two in particular stand out. Her opening song, “Le Diable/Ca Va,” proves she is as adept with French language pronunciation as she is with using her sheer vocal power to convey Brel’s anger at his world. Her longing and purposeful “My Childhood” is another standout. She demonstrates necessary vocal restraint and has an uncanny knack for conveying the song’s wistful lyrics. Even in numbers featuring the entirety of the cast (including two of my favorites, “Carousel” and “If We Only Have Love”), it’s impossible to not keep eyes focused on Ms. Diaz. Every moment she is on stage, her intensity never lets up.
Sam Ludwig’s strong tenor voice is put to great use in this production. For such a young performer, he is skillful in his interpretation of Mr. Brel’s masterpieces. Mr. Ludwig shows he can combine strong vocals with comedy in his rendition of “Madeleine” and his angry “Next” allows him to use his commendable acting skills. He’s a strong musical theatre talent to be sure.
Theatre veteran Bobby Smith’s take on “Amsterdam” is one of the best I’ve heard. His stage presence is something to marvel at during this number. Bayla Whitten excels in the ingénue role. Her playful “Timid Frieda” (backed by Bobby and Sam) is the very definition of charm.
Serge Seiden has chosen a very minimalistic approach to staging this production. Whether his “less is more” approach is the best choice here is up for debate, but he certainly allows the strong source material to speak for itself. DC’s own young theatrical phenom Matthew Gardiner’s choreography gives the staging some pizazz and allows the ensemble to establish connections with one another that wouldn’t be possible without such movements. The band- with musical director/conductor Jenny Cartney on piano and accordion, Yusef Chisholm on bass, David Cole on guitar, and Greg Holloway on percussion- plays the evocative music with precision and vigor. Much of the success of the show, from a music standpoint, is the result of the fine musicianship of all 4 players. The cast and the band form a cohesive unit and make the show something that should be seen.