‘Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris” has to be the most emotional musical in town. The same thing was true when this impassioned revue celebrating the Brussels-born/Paris-centered songwriter first opened Off-Broadway in 1978. A Broadway engagement followed its four-year run at the old Village Gate.
This vibrantly staged and beautifully sung revival at the intimate and grungy Zipper Theater holds more than its own inevitably in the light of the sublime original cast. Gordon Greenberg, who revitalized a revival of the cult musical “The Baker’s Wife” for the Paper Mill Playhouse and Goodspeed and also directed the stunning “Floyd Collins” at the Signature, has placed an emphasis on the revue’s anti-war sentiments. But this does not come at the expense of this whirling musical carousel’s focus on personalized passion, pain, angst, love, loss, despair, and regret, and all those things that make life worth living. Greenberg’s vision has made it all exhilarating, if not downright thrilling.
It may not be easy to figure out where we are supposed to be in Robert Bissinger’s setting (atmospherically lighted by Jeff Croiter), but it gives the impression of being a seedy, possibly disreputable, sort of bar lounge in an abandoned bomb shelter. In many ways it resembles the lounge/bar area of the Zipper Theater itself. Wherever we are, the four excellent actor/singers make it work for them in imaginative and dramatic ways. As unforgettably individualized as they are, these performers are also effectively paired in complementary relationships.
Greenberg couldn’t have picked a better performer to capture the French mise en scene (if that’s what it is?) than petite brunette Gay Marshall, who appeared in Greenberg’s staging of “The Baker’s Wife” and who has toured with her one-woman show “Piaf: La Vie L’Amour.” If Brel devotees would prefer to hear more of the lyrics sung in the original French, Marshall complies to a degree with a few choice stanzas in French and in the obligatory French style. She sets the revue’s earthy mood from the start with the worldly cynicism of “Le Diable (Ca Va)” and continues to embrace such plaintive odes as “My Childhood,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and the sorrows of losing a child in war “Sons of,” and “Marieke.” Marshall captures both the fire and the poignancy of Brel’s intensely literate lyrics, culminating in the frenzied whirl of life’s “Carousel.”
Robert Cuccioli, who showed how splendidly he could play two sides of one personality in “Jekyll & Hyde,” savors the many facets of a disheartened lover who has been put through the ringer once too often. His rich baritone voice, the artful panache with which he embraces the songs, and his flair for comedy infuse many of the concerted numbers. But he is in his most whimsically world-weary mode in “Jackie” (“And if someday I should become a singer with a Spanish bum, who sings for women of great virtue.”), plaintive about lost love “Fanette,” pathetic as a wasted old sailor in the port of old “Amsterdam,” and ironically cool at his funeral in “Funeral Tango.”
The expressive Natascia Diaz, who has appeared in such musicals as “Man of La Mancha,” “Seussical,” and “Capeman,” has a lovely crystalline soprano. But in this revue, she stands apart in the way she inhabits the core of Brel’s poetic messages. As the survivor of an unmerciful, unforgiving world, she brings an impassioned simplicity to such tear-jerkers as “I Loved,” “Old Folks,” “My Death,” and as the naive suitcase-toting “Timid Freda,” with able assistance from Cuccioli and Rodney Hicks. The limber and ingratiating Hicks proves eminently versatile as he brings an energizing life to “The Bulls,” whoring in the army (“Next”), and the death of a war hero (“The Statue”). He brings a zesty playfulness to two songs for the three men, “The “Bachelor’s Dance,” and “The Middle Class.”
Ensemble numbers, such as “The Desperate Ones” (“They hold each other’s hand, they walk without a sound; Down forgotten streets, their shadows kiss the ground; Their foot steps sing a song that’s ended before it’s begun; They walk without a sound, the desp’rate ones”), with lyrics by Brel and music by Gerard Jouannest, and the hopeful finale “If We Only Have Love (“then tomorrow will dawn; And the days of our years will rise on that morn”), earned cheers from an enraptured audience.
This re-envisioned Brel celebration only enhances the memory of the original show that starred Elly Stone, Mort Shuman, Shawn Elliott, and Alice Whitfield. Current interpreters Cuccioli, Diaz, Hicks, and Marshall are extolling the poetry of Brel’s lyrics and singing the dramatic music with all its searing imagery and rhythmic ingenuity. Except for the unconscionable use of body mikes in a small space, the theatergoer will be treated to 28 intimate stories about life, love, and death, each from the heart of one incomparable composer. HHH
— Simon Saltzman
Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris,” The Zipper Theater, 336 West 37th Street. $65. 212-233-6200.