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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.