The Skylight’s “Brel,” on the outskirts of greatness

By - Jan 30th, 2011 02:29 am
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From left: Steve Koehler, Liz Baltes, PJ Baccari, Alison Mary Forbes.

Deep emotion, cynicism and sardonic humor all spring from the music and lyrics of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which the Skylight Opera Theatre opened Friday night.

The success of this revue of 27 of the Belgian composer’s songs owes much to Ray Jivoff’s direction. He makes the most of the show’s limited opportunities for action. His good inventions include the giddy, flag-waving vaudeville behind PJ Baccari’s appealing Madeline and the emotion that nearly spins into chaos in Carousel. Designer Keith Pitts underscores the thoughts in the words and music with a shadowbox set loaded with fitting objects and images.

Although Brel’s songs fall under the category of popular music, they’re not easy to perform. They require the singer not only to carry the melody but also to tell the story. Brel was known for full-contact performances that left audiences astounded and Brel spent. The style requires total emotional commitment and an almost athletic delivery.

The Skylight’s singers — Liz Baltes, Alison Mary Forbes, Steve Koehler and Baccari — post solid, tuneful performances. They sing earnestly, sweetly and well, and work well as an ensemble. Baltes has the most chansonesque voice. Especially in her rich lower registers, she can plumb the deeper, darker meanings of the music. She adds a dash of vengeful humor at the end of I Loved. She pulls all the right musical and theatrical strings in Ne Me Quitte Pas and Sons of.

PJ Baccari channels a taste of Brel’s own bite, showmanship and vigor, especially in Jackie and Next. Alison Mary Forbes and Steve Koehler deliver consistently strong vocals in their featured numbers. Koehler takes the audience on a wild ride to an emotional crescendo in his anticipation of the wretched but irresistible Mathilde. Forbes’ defining moment comes in the wrenching English/Flemish Marieke.

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

This revival of the 1968 revuew has all the elements of a blockbuster, but sometimes falls just short of its potential. Moments verge on brilliance, but stay on the verge when a performer doesn’t take that leap of faith vocally or emotionally. At other times, what’s supposed to be bitterly ironic comes off as cute or swings toward humorless anger.

Still, kudos to the Skylight for giving this work the exposure it deserves. Brel’s name doesn’t always ring a bell, but his music still does. These songs remain relevant, and they still sound modern decades after Jacques Brel died in a suburb of Paris in 1978.

The show runs through Feb. 20 at the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center. 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.

Categories: Classical, Theater

0 thoughts on “The Skylight’s “Brel,” on the outskirts of greatness”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I believe that Milwaukee residents are very lucky to have such a diverse number of performing arts productions like the above mentioned Skylight Opera theatre’s remarkable “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”. It is a masterpiece brilliantly directed by Ray Jivoff. The singers, Alison Mary-Forbes and Steve Koehler sang my favorite songs “Au suivant” and “Le port d’ Amsterdam”. As a long time member of the Alliance Française de Milwaukee, I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy such high quality artistry right here in Milwaukee (and in French). The arts are the soul of this city.

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