Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris Music by Jacques Brel; Book and English lyrics by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman Directed by Serge Seiden; At MetroStage to Oct. 21 A chanson icon's English-language turn

Company Loves Misery: An ensemble has a good time with Brel’s sadsack chanson.

Everything we have gets lost eventually. Youth is fleeting, love is fickle, and the only way to avoid losing either is to die before they slip from your grasp. Life, of course, gets away from us all in the end. That’s the happy-go-lucky ethos of Jacques Brel, the Belgian-by-birth but oh-so-French songwriter celebrated in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, the musical revue opening MetroStage’s season.

Premiering off Broadway in 1968—when Brel was still alive, well, and transitioning his career from music to film—Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s show offered the chance for American audiences to enjoy Brel in their own language. The emotional sweep of the ministories in these songs is perfectly suited to the stage, and the show was a huge success, enjoying numerous revivals. A 2006 iteration was also a revision, and director Serge Seiden’s production at MetroStage largely follows the song selection and sequencing of that version, with a little minor shuffling.

This production inherits more than just its structure from the 2006 show: One of its four singers, Natascia Diaz, is on hand as well. The songs are divided fairly evenly among the crew, but Diaz tends to get the showiest ones, the epic laments like “My Death,” “Marieke,” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”

That last one, a plea to a lover not to leave, is the only song in the show performed in the original French, yet thanks to Diaz’s wounded, desperate performance, it may have more emotional impact than any other number. Diaz has mastered the art of allowing her eyes to fill with tears with hardly a drop spilled over the lids, and when she looks up into the single spotlight, they seem to shimmer in vulnerable time with the songs.

Of course, those songs are loaded with plenty of heavy emotion to begin with, and all the uniformly excellent performers take full advantage of their inherent theatricality. Seiden also puts great faith in the ability of the songs to stand on their own, with a minimal production that offers little more visually than a colored scrim for background and a pole positioned stage right for occasional dancing around or leaning against. With 29 songs and a full two hours of running time, that stripped-down aesthetic doesn’t offer much to draw you back in if your engagement flags.

Then again, why would it? The show is calibrated to control emotional response the same way a roller coaster stokes the adrenal glands. So for every sad-eyed love song, there are bigger, brasher numbers to complement: the cynical barroom irreverence of “The Middle Class,” sung with hilariously drunken glee by Bobby Smith; “Next,” a discordant, angry anti-war song that is the essentially PTSD set to music, brought to maniacal life by Sam Ludwig.

No matter how rollicking the show gets, however, there’s always an element of darkness. The Bayla Whitten-led song-and-dance showstopper “Brussels,” easily the shiniest and happiest song of the bunch, with jaunty straw boater hats for props, details high times in Belgium while slipping in references to the singers’ personal failings and the horrors of World War I. With Brel, you can always count on misery to be a catchy good time.

Our Readers Say

Thank you for your backhanded complimentary review.

If you so resent the invitation to be affected by our show (which is what you go to theatre to do, FEEL something) then why on earth are you reviewing our work on a show which you clearly have a predisposition for NOT entering into or joining with. Do our production, and your readers and yourself a favor; don't waste any of our time, and kindly send someone who can critique the piece as ART and an experience of ART, which is what THEATRE is. Not a conspiracy of manipulation, as you have implied here. But an exploration of human experience, in this case, though Brel's song writing.

Or maybe you're just too cool...no Brel show is gonna "sucker" you into feeling something.
Send someone who knows how to review theater on it's own terms.

NR, I go to a lot of theater, in D.C. and elsewhere, and I read a lot of reviews, and this is an exceptionally positive review. The writer even praises your interpretation of a key song for providing "more emotional impact than any other number" and calls the cast "uniformly excellent." And you're pissed off? The reviewer's job is to tell his readers where a show succeeds in what it attempts and where it fails, and whether it's worth their time and their money. It is most assuredly NOT his job to enter into the show in the same way as the performers, or to help sell tickets. If you can't handle a review that is anything less than an unconditional rave, you're too fragile for the career you've chosen. You have embarrassed yourself.
Perhaps I have. At no other time have I ever responded to a review in my career, and this most certainly will be the last. I do not look to reviews for validation of my work. In this case, I am interested in the impact especially with this material. Too bad he found us out and called us out on our show that is "calibrated to control emotional response" with these "sadsack chansons", well, Thank god my "mastering the art" of having my eyes brim with tears may have resulted the evenings most impactful moment. (!)

Yes, it's called ACTING. That's what we do in a THEATRE. It is an evening of arranged feelings in moments that we prepare for, in our conjuring, to hopefully be as real as we can let them be. And as the beholder can let them be. But thank you for the praise. (????)

I suppose in this case, absence makes the heart grow fonder. I don't know all the reviewers in this town by name, but now that I do my research I see it has been Trey Graham who usually reviews for City Paper, and who's point of view I look forward to hearing on a piece. While equally adept as the above fellow at being cutting or snarky, his lens as a critic is undeniably informed with a discerning eye, a breadth of THEATRICAL experience, THEATRICAL sensitivity, and a balance of intelligence and humor that is irreplaceable. I suppose I will have to look forward to the next time he writes. And in the meantime, your right, Reader. I will take what I can get. There is some honey in all that vinegar.

I must now rest up so I will be in prime shape to reel in the next bunch of suckers at tonights performance. (evil laugh)

I'm a little mystified by Ms. Diaz's comment here. It's not entirely clear to me where some of her complaints are coming from, as I in no way resented the invitation to be affected by the show, nor did I feel suckered into feeling something.

I can only assume that Ms. Diaz is reading that sentiment into my assertion that "The show is calibrated to control emotional response the same way a roller coaster stokes the adrenal glands." Just so we're clear here, that's a statement of high praise; but perhaps the performer simply isn't a fan of roller coasters.

She also also draws a distinction between "art" and a "conspiracy of manipulation." Are those necessarily mutually exclusive? I tend to agree with Picasso and Welles in the notion that lies and manipulation are the standard-issue tools of the artist/dramatist. I see neither as negative, and don't believe that subscribing to that notion precludes being emotionally affected by a work. Quite the opposite, in fact.
This review has only positives to say about the production and the performers in it. I am astonished anyone would overact in that way and essentially tell someone who wrote such glowing praise of her performance to not waste her time and watch another show. Very poor taste.
Well, Ian, thank you very much for your response, and for clarifying the intent behind your words, which I simply did not receive. It appears I have grossly misunderstood your tone. Apologies. Thank you for coming to our show. Like I mentioned, I have never (but always wanted to) engage in a discussion of impact with a reviewer. Your thoughtful response has made me glad I did.

bitch is crazy
ND - Your attack was an embarrassment to you and your show and your theater. You tried to back-track by saying you always wanted to "engage in a discussion of impact with a reviewer", but there is no engagement here. You blatantly lashed out at this writer, belittled his opinion and writing, and in the end, didn't even give him the courtesy of a "backhanded compliment", but instead just flat out told him he didn't know how to do his job. But you didn't stop there...you went on to tell him that his co-worker DID know how to do his job and much better. ALL because of a review that reads very positively to the rest of us reading it. Shame on you. Would you like those of us who attend theater in this city to list who could do your job and who we would prefer to see do your job better than you?

What if critics took YOUR advice from your first sample of bitterness above? They would probably tell MetroStage to cast someone who knows how to read theater reviews on their own terms...and get over themselves.

You've lost me and my interest in seeing your show because of your tantrum here, and I will be sure to direct all friends who mention wanting to see your show to see the pre-show you put on here at the Washington City Paper website before they commit.

Now go rest up....and stop writing evil laughs into your comments.
At least this confirms the idea that ND has a massive ego and an attidude problem. Don't like buying into rumors, but ones own words help shine a light on the truth.

HA! Touche. Well spake, Theatre-goer...I have received your point...it is wise and well taken. And I have to say, I both hear and agree with you. Olive brach out, I can only apologize again, as I have to Ian, for reacting thusly here, and hope it is received in kind. I only hope that you do please reconsider coming to see us. It is a beautiful evening of music that we are proud to spend time in and share. I really would welcome the opportunity to meet, or simply just perform for you. Rest assured, I have soberly learned my lesson. From here on out, for what it's worth, in good spirit I will (gratefully) be 'sticking to my lines', as they say.
Unfortunate for ND but we often learn from such an interchange. I so appreciate the quality and excellent offerings at Metrostage. I also know that putting on a performance is a very personal and exhausting experience. I, too, thought the review was positive. I am glad that ND is feeling better about it and will never make her BP raise to the level of her initial posting. If JBIALIP invites us to consider, the clock on the wall waits for us all and we need to enjoy the journey -- so I hope ND is enjoying her role!
I arrived very late to this thread, but if the listener cannot see, feel and relate to the times and feelings of those born into World War then none of these songs (which chronicle the span of a human life) will speak to you or move you. There are better and worse singers if these songs, but Brel's painting of the world in which he lived and loved will endure forever. God Bless Jacques Brel. He is Alive and Well.

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