Jacques Brel alive, well and living in the Third Ward

By - Jan 27th, 2011 04:00 am
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Steve Koehler, Alison Mary Forbes, PJ Baccari, Liz Baltes. Photo by Mark Frohna.

The Skylight Opera Theatre wants to prove that the songs of Jacques Brel are not only alive and well, but also relevant.

The company will open Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28. The revue runs through Feb. 20 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

American audiences know Brel, who sold millions of records in Europe, through covers by American artists. Everyone from Sinatra to Streisand recorded versions of one or more of Brel’s romantic ballads.

Jacques Brel was born in Brussels in 1929 and moved to Paris in 1952, where he performed his chansons (lyric-driven French songs) in cabarets and music halls. His songs marry poetry to music, with themes of love, loss, family, death and social injustice. He died in 1978, but survives on disc and now very much on YouTube. He sings in French, mostly, in a passionate, soulful, smoky voice that inspired performers as diverse as Leonard Cohen and Sting.

The Skylight’s production is based on the original 1968 off-Broadway revue and on some of the revisions in the 2006 New York revival. The show marks the Skylight main-stage directing debut of longtime associate artistic director Ray Jivoff. The pianist and music director is Richard Carsey, former Skylight music director and artistic director.

“Brel’s music is gorgeous and thought-provoking,” Jivoff says. “His songs are powerful – some are very romantic, others are rather dark and have surprising twists.”

Jacques Brel, in Reginald V. Gray 1965 drawing for the New York Times. Via Wikipedia Commons; placed into public domain by the artist.

The anthem-like If We Only Have Love opens and closes the revue. Rod McKuen, pop poet laureate of the 190s, translated this and many Brel songs, including the evergreen If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas).

The Skylight cast will sing most of them in English, but will render several in alternating French and English verses. Jivoff found a local Belgian-born trombonist who was willing to coach the four singers in the subtleties of  Brel’s Flemish-accented French.

Jivoff says that each song tells a story complete within itself. Many songs build to dramatic conclusions known via the “Brelian crescendo.” The more than two dozen songs in the revue roughly follow Brel’s life, with its tragedies and complexities.

The set, designed by Keith Pitts, re-creates a theater warehouse. Props, such as a wheel and a clock, symbolize elements in the songs.

Jivoff and artistic director Bill Theisen cast the show with three Skylight veterans and one newcomer.

“Three of the four performers are familiar to Milwaukee,” Jivoff says. “Alison Mary Forbes appeared in the Skylight’s production of Rent. I first worked with her when she was 12, doing Caddie Woodlawn at First Stage. Liz Baltes has deep family roots at Skylight – her late father was a music director at the old space on Jefferson. Steve Koehler teaches acting and physics at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, a Skylight partner school. He was in the Skylight productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Spitfire Grill, Floyd Collins and Man of La Mancha. PJ Baccari is making his Skylight debut.”

Tickets for Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, are $22.50 – $65 at the Broadway Theatre Center box office, 158 N. Broadway, (414) 291-7800 and online.

0 thoughts on “Jacques Brel alive, well and living in the Third Ward”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Jacques Brel team. I am honoured that you put my Jacques Brel drawing on your page. I hope you had a good opening and will have a good run. I did the drawing in the dressing room of The Olympia Theatre. Paris on the second night of his performance. He was a delightful man and I understand why “tenderness” was so dear to him. I wonder if you could post me a programme of your production. I live both in Paris and London. I am at London now for a few months at. 113 New King’s Road. LONDON SW6 4SJ. U.K. Foe me Jacques was a GREAT poet. Sincerely. Reginald.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Dear Mr. Gray,
    Thanks so much for visiting thirdcoast and for commenting. Just to be clear, the Skylight Opera did not use your drawing. I selected for our two stories about the Skylight’s Brel production because I like it very much and because you so generously placed it in the public domain. Thank you for that, too. — Tom Strini, Culture Editor, thirdcoastdigest.com.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Dear Tom Strini.

    Sorry about my error. However I am more than delighted that your goodself used the drawing on TCD. I like your page and now that I know it I will click in often. Best. Reginald.

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