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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

By New York City
Robert Cuccioli, Gay Marshall, Rodney Hicks, and Natascia Diaz in Jacques Brel...
(Photo © Carol Rosseg)
Robert Cuccioli, Gay Marshall,
Rodney Hicks, and Natascia Diaz
in Jacques Brel...
(Photo © Carol Rosseg)
Jacques Brel, the writer, is not actually alive or well or living in Paris. He died in 1978 at age 49. The current revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, the legendary revue of his songs, lives at the Zipper in Manhattan. Unfortunately, it suffers from what the French would call la malaise, and the reason it's under the weather is the dubious stewardship of a few of the show's interpreters.

It should be difficult to misinterpret Brel, since there is little that's obscure or ambiguous about his work. He wrote as if observing the world from an especially hot seat in his own personal hell. In translating his songs, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman -- who also appeared in the original production -- stuck accurately, for the most part, to both Brel's spirit and letter. Love in his world is equivocal and fleeting, too soon devolving into routine ("Ne Me Quitte Pas," "I Loved," "Songs for Old Lovers"). And life, if it continues for very long, is ultimately unrewarding ("The Desperate Ones," "Sons Of," "Old Folks").

Even when Brel turns light-hearted, as in the swingy, irresistible "Madeleine," the eventual news about love's expectations isn't promising; it's self-deluding. In "La Valse a Mille Temps," which Blau and Shuman loosely translated as "Carousel," the gaiety with which the song begins quickly accelerates into hysteria and head-spinning despair. The implication of "If We Only Have Love" is that love is one big "if."

There's no need to make Brel's intentions any clearer, but director Gordon Greenberg and choreographer Mark Dendy don't seem to understand them to begin with. A similar problem too often afflicts Robert Cuccioli and Rodney Hicks, who over-interpret Brel's many anthems for men. Indeed, Brel lovers may bite their tongues so deeply during Cuccioli's rendition of "Jackie" -- in which the singer wants just one hour every day to be "cute in a stupid-ass way" -- that blood will be drawn. On every syllable of every word, he indulges in the kind of acting that blares, "I'm acting!" When a grinning Hicks delivers "Madeleine," choreographer Dendy has all four cast members (Gay Marshall and Natascia Diaz are the women here) doing so much business that the audience is worn out by the song's end.

On the plus side, Marshall and Diaz are often true to the material. Diaz allows intelligent concern to surface in "Old Folks," showing exactly what the song is about. As for Marshall, her performance is the best reason to attend this production. A wisp of a woman, she immediately conjures Edith Piaf -- maybe because she has previously played her. More importantly, she believes every word that Brel etched and therefore finds no call to embellish. When she sings "Marieke" in French, Flemish and English, she achingly reveals Jacques Brel's core message: The heart shatters daily. If this revival enjoys a healthy run, Marshall will be the explanation.


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