Elizabeth Ahlfors, Cabaret Scenes

Jacques Brel Returns …The Music of Brel, Blau,Shuman and Jouannest en Cabaret The TriadNew York, NY

For Jacques Brel aficionados – and this evening indicated that there’s quite a fan club in New York – Jacques Brel Returns is a must-see evening.  Set in a cabaret with intimacy as the key ingredient, and performers who deliver to the audience, the Belgian actor/troubadour’s fiercely passionate songs are 75 minutes of sardonic, nostalgic, wry humor and piercing emotion.

The show, currently running on selected monthly dates, features highlights from the 2006/2007 Zipper Theatre revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, with a rotating cast.  This performance featured Karen Kohler, Jean Brassard, Tamra Hayden and Ereni Sevasti, with Rich Siegel on piano and vocals.  Siegel provided a compelling opening, in French, of the melodic “Les vieux amants,” and joined Jean Brassard in his amusing adventure of unrequited love for “Madeleine.”  Most of the songs were performed solo and non-stop, mainly in English, with some French or Flemish.  After a brief welcome from one of the producers, Dan Whitten, there were no introductions or talk of Brel.  Brel’s art came through his songs.  A beret, a cape and some flowers were some simple props to help set the moods.

I would have liked more French from the multilingual Kohler and Brassard.  Kohler has a riveting delivery, evident in “If You Go Away” (Rod McKuen’s translation). However, the resonance of her despair and desperation was more indicative of  Brel’s original title, “Ne me quitte pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”), which is entirely different from McKuen’s.  While she included some of the original French lyrics, I was disappointed that the production team did not choose a translation that better fit Kohler’s emotional delivery or, better yet, sing it all in French, which I know she can do beautifully.

Another standout, Tamra Hayden, is someone to watch, delivering two of Brel’s most sentimental songs in English: “Sons of …” (“Fils de….”), with its reminder that, “All were children like your own,” and “Old Folks” (“Les vieux”).   Each was presented as distinctly and sharply as a snapshot.  The fourth vocalist, Ereni Sevasti, with a sweet soprano voice, was surprisingly powerful with “My Death” (“Le Mort”).  As two staggering drunks, Brassard and Kohler ridiculed “The Middle Class” (“The middle class are just like pigs/ The fatter they get, the less they regret”).  No one ever praised Brel for his tact.

The ensemble joined for the dizzying ride on a “Carousel,” a translation of Brel’s “La valse a mille temps.” The group ended with Brel’s 1956 commercial breakthrough hit, “If We Only Have Love” (“Quand on n’a pas que l’amour”).
For Jacques Brel, love was his driving force—love of life, a person, peace, and the Belgian flat lands.  His songs illustrate this, whatever the language, and these performers deliver with passion and sensibility.

Shows continue at The Triad on Nov. 3, Nov. 17, Dec. 1, Dec. 15 all shows at 8 pm and they are hoping for a weekly run after the New Year.

Elizabeth Ahlfors, Cabaret Scenes, October 13, 2010