Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Chester Playhouse Presents Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

Each year the Chester Playhouse hosts a Summer Theater Festival, and it always surprises me to find such interesting and well-done shows in our small seaside community.  Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is the first show in this season's line-up.   For those of you who aren't familiar with Jacques Brel (neither was I), he was a Belgian singer-songwriter whose songs were performed by the likes of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier.  In 1968, a musical revue of his songs was created and performed at the Village Gate Theater in New York, where it ran for four years.  Since then, revivals have popped up periodically, including the one in Chester this summer.

I was captivated from the first song, "Marathon."   The music is upbeat and it's easy to get caught up in it and miss the kaleidoscope of historical events covered by the lyrics.  In fact, I didn't fully appreciate their depth until I came home and looked them up.  The song is about a dance marathon, and the dancers have to keep going.  As they dance, they cover the passing decades.   Early on in the song, they "must dance because the Twenties roar...The road to whoopee and a whole lot more, Charles A. Lindbergh, tons of confetti, Dempsey-Tunney, Sacco and Vanzetti, Black, black Monday and the market drops, But we keep dancing, dancing, We can't stop."  The lyrics for the Thirties cover everything from Orphan Annie to breadlines to Hitler to the Siegfield follies in one short stanza.  Then we get, "The Forties burn because the trumpets blare, Yanks are coming, coming over there...Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheim, God makes mushrooms just as God makes time...."   Very powerful, almost sneakily so.   As I took a look at the lyrics, I wondered if Billy Joel's found his inspiration for "We Didn't Start the Fire" in Brel's "Marathon."

While there were a couple of numbers that were pure fun (like "Carousel," whose words are sung faster and faster as the carousel spins), many of the songs had a message, be it global or relational.   The song "Old Folks" was incredibly poignant, with its lyrics about a couple who have lived "too long". 

                             They just put down their heads and go to sleep one day
                             They hold each other's hand like children in the dark
                             But one will get lost anyway
                             And the other will remain
                             Just sitting in that room
                             Which makes no sound.   

In some instances, I knew the lyrics carried a message but I wasn't sure what it was since it was the first time I'd heard the song.    Three days later, I'm still thinking about the show and am considering going a second time.

Now that I've fawned over the songwriting, let me say a few words about the cast and production.  The singing was fantastic.   All four cast members were strong but Cliff LeJeune stole the show for me.  This is his third summer in performances at the Playhouse and I am looking forward to seeing him in the future.   The direction of the performance and choreography were outstanding as well, with nuances that gave life to the words being sung.  (Are you getting the feeling that I liked it???)

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you that my review of the show was not shared by my companions. My friends' reactions ranged from lukewarm to intrigued.    That's one of the great things about art and theater (and life, for that matter!)  We all bring our own tastes and experiences to the table, so it's inevitable that we will have differing reactions.   For me, though, it was a great outing with friends enjoying a stirring performance.  My hat is off to the Playhouse for including this production in its this year's Summer Theater Festival.

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