With the opening of North Coast Repertory Theatre's 27th season, I've seen Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris a total of 23 times since 1974. The late Belgium-born singer-composer totally has me by the collar—think Tom Waits and add a generous supply of continental European refinement, and you've got one of the modern world's most unbelievably wonderful expositors of the human condition, big fat warts and all.
I don't just worship this show. I stalk this show.
Even for a casehardened vet like me, North Coast's turn has its excellent surprises. Robert Grossman's “Fanette” is an eminently touching solo on unrequited love, one of Brel's pet themes. Courtney Corey doesn't just sing lead on “Carousel,” a frenetic look at the toll modern life exacts; she paints it. But if Brel's superior lyrics are going to register as they should, they do require particular attention to typecasting. This show lacks that perspective in two serious respects, and even amid Brel's magnificence and the topnotch musicianship (led by Steven Withers' piano), it does tend to suffer accordingly.
Brel, who died of lung cancer in 1978 at age 49, is far better known in Europe—he had little use for 1960s and '70s America amid his vehement opposition to our presence in Vietnam. Even so, this 27-song cabaret-style piece opened in Greenwich Village in 1968 and has since been staged around the globe. That means a lot of the world has access to antiwar gems like “The Bulls” (“Or perhaps with their last breaths / would they not pardon us their deaths / knowing what we did at… Saigon?”) and stories such as “The Middle Class,” an ode to political apathy (“The middle class are just like pigs / The fatter they get, the less they regret”).
The tunes are crazy with references to mothers, daughters, fathers and sons; accordingly, the casting of four normally spans a generation (an older Man 1 and Woman 1 and a younger Man 2 and Woman 2). But here, those references are badly skewed amid a curious age disparity. With all due respect to Grossman and director David Ellenstein, Grossman's advancing years render him miscast as Man 1, especially against Corey's (Woman 1) youthful beauty. And Corey has an extremely rapid vibrato in her voice—hardly the stuff of the seasoning that's supposed to come with middle-age turf. As Man 2, Jason Maddy sports a bit too much game face for his more sprightly lyrics, while Jenn Grinels' Woman 2 is splendid in just about every respect. Marty Burnett's set captures the essence of the bohemian cafés and Parisian walk-down bars that often became the younger Brel's second homes.
I saw a university-level installment of this show 11 times in 1974 and haven't looked back—such is the spell this man's legacy casts when it's mounted at all well. If you seek an introduction to Brel's riveting lyrics and the philosophies behind them, North Coast's effort is worth the time. More due diligence on the casting equation, and it might have been one for the books. This review is based on the opening-night performance of Sept. 13. Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris runs through Oct. 5 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. $30-$42. 858-481-1055 or www.northcoastrep.org. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.