Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at PICT Classic | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at PICT Classic

This production gets every song absolutely right.

This season, PICT Classic Theatre has been staging productions not just in its "home," at the Stephen Foster Memorial Theater, but also in Downtown's Trust Arts Education Center. For the second show in this new venue, the company is ... well, "disinterring" might not be the right word, but there is an element of exhumation in presenting Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

This cabaret-styled revue of songs by Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel was put together by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, with English lyrics and additional material, for a lengthy off-Broadway run in 1968. The show played around the world, and every now and again gets revived. But it's been absent from Pittsburgh stages for years. The first, and last, time I reviewed it was in the late 1980s, and my only recollection is that the theater was so hot and humid by the evening's end that the cast — in white shirts and blouses — had sweated so profusely you could see through their clothes.

So it was with some trepidation I settled into my seat: Usually there's a reason a show remains unproduced for 25 years. But now I'm convinced the hiatus was because the Theater Gods were waiting until PICT director Alan Stanford could assemble Daina Michelle Griffith, Justin Lonesome, Caroline Nicolian and Jonathan Visser to perform the material, and Douglas Levine was available to function as music director, bringing together musicians John Marcinizyn, Pierce Cook and P. J. Gatch. I cannot imagine this show will ever be as soaring as what PICT has done.

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at PICT Classic
Photo courtesy of Suellen Fitzsimmons
Left to right: Justin Lonesome, Caroline Nicolian, Jonathan Visser and Daina Michelle Griffith in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

Brel's work — especially by contemporary standards — can't be easy material to perform (or, honestly, for an audience to cotton to). Resolutely rejecting the classic AABA structure, Brel's songs are moody, range-y and infused with more than a little melancholy. If you get them right, however, they can fly, and this production gets every one absolutely right.

Stanford's directorial approach is stunning — he treats each of the 25-plus numbers as its own self-contained play, establishing the song's universe and sending the performers off to explore that world and locate the joy or heartache inside.

As an ensemble, noticeably in such numbers as "Old Folks" and "Next," the cast is sublime. With Stanford's direction and Levine's musical direction, the dramatic and musical tones are pitch-perfect. In smaller pairings, Visser and Lonesome on "The Middle Class" and Griffith and Nicolian with "Sons Of ...," the effect is haunting. And when each steps forward for his or her solo spot, it's breathtaking.

A word to the wise: Most performances are already sold out, and the company has added five dates in Oakland. But no matter where you catch it, you're in for a hell of an evening.

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