Aug 1, 2010

Jacques Brel at Stratford, Ontario

Sean Pinchin does blues at the Boar's Head, Stratford.

The Stratford, Ontario 2010 production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is a hip cabaret of a musical and a roaring success. As usual with this play, there is no story, there are no songs bursting absurdly from women at the meat market or men at the docks or grandfathers sitting on the toilet. As it should be in all shows where music is the focus, Jacques Brel is one compelling song after another, freed from the syrup of some far-fetched narrative.

From aggressive, raw portraits like “Port of Amsterdam” to lighter, zippy tunes like “Madeliene” to touching ballads like “Timid Frieda,” Brel’s range is terrific. If you don't love each song, you will at least admit you're never bored as he fits often complex lyrics to unconventional, unpredictable music. One reviewer compares Brel to Bob Dylan—different kinds of songs, same kind of musical-poetic genius. I think too of Leonard Cohen as composer or Edith Piaf as chanteuse.

I cannot find YouTube samples that do the songs justice. If the music is OK there, the technology is bad, and vice versa. Brel, singing his own work, is also at YouTube, but I find him overly dramatic. "Composer" and "Singer" are not synonyms (said that damnable New Critic again).

So I’ll just mention that I’ve seen or heard four performances of the play, and Stratford’s four singers and four musicians are the best of the lot by far. From the jazzy, raucous and sometimes comic material to the most moving, melodic ballads, no one can touch the the Stratford group for purity of intent or accuracy of delivery.

In the upbeat comic schticks, the director, singers, and musicians know their bounds. Brel’s comedy has substance and purpose, and the burlesque moments must not obscure that. Still, if there were any toes that didn't tap at all or teeth that didn't grin, they belonged to a few cadavers someone snuck into the building.

You need at least a vague sense of this, so here is Tommy Wallach, a YouTube guy, doing his rollicking version of “Jackie.” Tommy loses control at the end, but you might find his enthusiasm contagious. If it's a bit too long, hang in there for one verse and be sure you hear the refrain:

YouTube - W. #14 - Tommy Wallach - Jackie by Jacques Brel (cover)

If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way.

If you won't say that about yourself, I don't trust you.

In slower, more emotional songs like “Fanette,” “Sons of,” “Old Folks,” and “If We Only Have Love,” everything at Stratford is just right—tempo, pitch, mood, choreography, lighting, make-up. The band is especially impressive: one player for guitar and cello, one for violin and accordion, and one each for bass and piano.

From my personal favorite, “Timid Frieda,” here's one YouTube version to give you just a bit of the melody and mood:

YouTube - Ottavia - Les Timides (Brel cover)

Then consider these lines in English about a young woman, maybe the archetypal daughter at 18 or 22, just beginning life in the city. The final three lines in the quotation are a refrain.

Timid Frieda
Won't return now
To the home where
They do not need her,
But always feed her
Little lessons
And platitudes from cans.

She is free now
She will be now
On the street where
The beat's electric.

There she goes
With her valises
Held so tightly in her hands

No tongue stud, no thong, no brassy mouth (though she does try to "take her brave new Fuck You stand"). If this is not a daughter in her idealized vulnerability, maybe she's the first love of many a man, the one he takes home to meet his mama.

If you know nothing of the music in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, you might want to go ahead and sample some more of the flawed YouTube performances. At least you'll see that it's not bluegrass.

In spite of YouTube's damaged goods, one or two clips might coax you into investing in the original CD (circa 1968) with Eric Blau, Mort Shuman, Elly Stone, Shawn Elliot, Alice Whitfield, and Wolfgang Knittel. I think they honor the music better than the 2006 CD directed by Gordon Greenberg and Eric Svejcar, which strikes me as severe. The voices are razor sharp—not kind or wounded, as they need to be in the ballads. Also, some of the instrumentation is intrusive—such as an overpowering bass or some self-consciously long stops: Look at me, look at me. The performers love themselves more than the music, and that's wrong.

But the Stratford, Ontario 2010 production got it right. Here are the artists’ names, for they were stupendous, and this thimbleful of blog recognition is all I can offer in return.

Director: Stafford Arima

Singers: Brent Carver, Robin Hutton (who was excellent as understudy for the ailing Jewelle Blackman), Mike Nadajewski, Nathalie Nadon.

Musicians: Laura Burton, Anna Atkinson, George Meanwell and Luc Michaud

For further information and some shamefully unflattering video of the rehearsals, you might go here:



Barbaro said...

Glad you enjoyed the trip, and found things non-Elizabethan to enjoy.

Connection too slow for song clips; maybe later.

I must say I think you're a bit glib in dismissing traditional musicals. Sure they're contrived, but when they're good, (Guys&Dolls, South Pacific, West Side Story...) they cast a unique spell.

If you remove all the admittedly awkward narrative, why not just call it a concert?

Banjo52 said...

Slow connection might be good--I almost hope people don't look at those clips or they might never choose to look at Brel done well.
(note instant poem. Well, couplet).

I suppose ignoring the awkward narrative would be rational on my part. But wouldn't it be rational on the composers' parts to avoid putting it there in the first place? The unique spell they cast on me involves Pepto Bismol.

Alas. But thanks for dropping in from far away busy-ness. And since I haven't shot any Republicans yet, I probably won't shoot any musical lovers either.


Pasadena Adjacent said...

I listened and thought the guy was cute cute cute in a stupid ass way.....but better then musicals; West Side Story being the exception

PJ said...

I don't know if I've heard those Brel songs, I do know that in the last year I bought a cassette tape of his music for $.25 or so. I'll have to dig it out and see which one it is. I'm sure that seeing it live is just so satisfying - especially since it was a good performance. I can't remember the last time I saw a performance of anything that didn't seem contrived, which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it, a production can feel ponderous when the performers are playing to an emotion(s) instead of just doing their damn job. But Pensacola is a small town...

Banjo52 said...

PA, do you mean Brel himself or that young Wallach at the keyboard? Either might fit "cute . . . stupid ass way." If I agreed to be less stubborn about one or two musicals, West Side Story would probably be one.

Paula, welcome back! Your "contrived" is just the right word. But for full disclosure I must say that the Brel show is also contrived in its own way; there's a lot of THEATER--some quasi-operatic singing, some prancing and dancing around, some acting out of the lyrics. Yet for some reason I gave in and went with it. Maybe that means the whole issue is subjective, personal, private.

Does anyone remember Coleridge's idea about the supernatural in literature? We must give over to "a willing suspension of disbelief." Why and how can we willingly suspend our disbelief for one piece of art and not another?

Damned if I know, unless, in this case, I sense the Brel saying,
"Here's a lot of music with no pretense of a story line. Hope you like it. Hope it blows your head off.

"In any case, the music will speak for itself. It will not ask some brain-dead plot about romantic love or whatever to speak for it or add to it. The music is the music."

Maybe it's like surgery. The viewer is anesthetized and opened up, but stuff is poured in instead of being pulled out. In this case, however, the patient has to AGREE to the anesthetic and surrender of himself. One or two songs in, I signed on the dotted line. (Of course, I already knew I liked some of the songs).

Deep. It's always DEEP at Banjo52.


Anonymous said...

Damn, this is long.

I really diskike theater, but I like Brel in the original.

Stratfordfest said...

Glad you enjoyed the show, it's one of my favourites from this season. I thought I'd share the production clips we have posted on youtube for your readers and yourself.

The Middle Class:



None of them are complete but I thought you may be interested to see these. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this production.

Aaron Kropf
Social and Online Media Coordinator
Stratford Shakespeare Festival

PJ said...

By contrived I think I mean self-absorbed. We're all guilty of it, trained actors are a kind of relief from "us", that's why they're so much fun to watch.

PJ said...

And I'm glad to be back!

Banjo52 said...

Aaron of Stratfordfest, I'm surprised and pleased that you found a little blog like this. Your JB was a great show, and it was hard to keep my comments short. Also, if you have the chance, my applause to Robin Hutton who, as understudy to Jewelle Blackman on July 24, was absolutely fantastic, especially in “Carousel.” Brent Carver is, deservedly, receiving boundless praise, but I found the other three and the band to be his equals. I don’t know what I was missing in Ms. Blackman, but it’s hard to imagine an improvement on what I saw. Why didn’t they come out for an encore? It seemed to me the audience was asking for it.

Also, thanks for the sites you offer for us to visit. I suppose it’s impossible for them to capture the quality of the show itself, but they give some hint of its flavor.

Banjo52 said...

AH, when you say "long," I'm sure you mean DEEP . . . ?

Paula, you're on fire: ". . . self-absorbed. We're all guilty of it, trained actors are a kind of relief from "us.'"

And there's that related idea that the Truth we get from Art is truer than Truth as day to day Reality, which needs tweezers and lacks all order and grace. "Art redeems life."

The way religion does?

Even if all the artists are contrived and self-absorbed?

Anyone want to go there? You might as well--I can hear you screaming clear over here.


Brenda's Arizona said...

Lovely acknowledgment of a fine art form! Thank you for the introduction and background - and your thoughts! - on the Stratford group. And how fun to see Aaron Kropf's comments and links!

Thanks, Banjomyn!

PJ said...

Actually, it was a Charles Aznavour tape...

Stratfordfest said...

They don't come out and do an encore because it's not part of the show, at least that is my guess. I love the show and always leave wanting more...which is the goal of theatre.

Lovers' Lane