[Theatre Review] Jacques Brel Revisited

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n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris

Sing’Theatre

28 May 2016, 4pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

26 May—4 June 2016

In the programme notes, director George Chan thanked his team “for being so brave to stage a show that is not necessarily commercially viable.” This anticipates the question: “Why would I want to watch some European thing which is just a series of songs?”

On the surface, the show seems quite foreign. But what exactly is Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris? It is a revue of songs by a Belgian singer which were written mostly in French, and translated into English by Americans. The songs touch on life, love, war, peace, death, age, class among many others.

In short, it is a little of everything brilliantly performed by a group of actors who are not afraid of putting their individual stamp on Brel’s classic songs.

In Frances Lee, we have sassiness coupled with a devilishly good voice which culminates in Funeral Tango. As her persona sardonically observes how people behave at her funeral, she makes the song her own by choosing to adopt a Singaporean accent to mock her “friends.” This zinger of a song is completed with her cast mates decked in sunglasses, while enacting a pantomime of lavish sympathy.

Stephanie Van Driesen provides a beautiful counterpoint to Lee by taking on songs that require a demure persona. From Timid Freida to the heart-wrenching Ne Me Quitte Pas, one relishes every single second she is on stage. The clarity of her voice and depth of expression attest to her virtuosity as a performer.

Not to be outdone, the men are keen to showcase their range and versatility. Apart from being impressed by Matt Jasper’s vocals, notice his range as he transits from being crass in Middle Class, to being earnest in Song for Old Lovers, to being camp in Next. My favourite performance of his has to be his gritty rendition of Amsterdam.

The same goes for George Chan as he delights the audience by being “cute in a stupid ass way” in Jackie as his persona prances around with youthful vigour while aspiring to be famous. His soulful rendition of Marieke goes in an opposite direction as his persona reflects on lost love. His choice of paring it down—as compared to having this intoxicating drive which is present in Brel’s performance—makes the song heartfelt and painful. In this vein, music director Joel Nah must be congratulated for his gorgeous arrangements of the music.

Speaking of choices, Chan must also be praised for his directorial choice of including Genevieve Peck’s projections as a subtle way to impress upon the audience the relevance of Brel’s message. He also exercised some poetic licence by replacing the places of conflicts in the last line of The Bulls to current ones; a sobering reminder of the slaughter that is still happening.

Together, the quartet showcases its range by keenly executing comical sequences—choreographed by Chan—in Madeleine as Jasper pines for her, while taking us for a dizzying ride in Carousel, before closing the show with a rousing anthem of peace, If We Only Have Love. This stellar cast works so well together that one hopes they will reunite to do something on a much larger scale.

That said, the latter half of the ignorant question posed at the beginning of this review contains a kernel of truth. While having a continuous performance of 28 songs—without any plot or explanation— is meant to showcase the poetry of Brel’s music, the constant barrage of song, choreography, and hard-hitting messages can be overwhelming. This results in having some of the numbers pass by in a blur. Unfortunately, this is out of Sing’Theatre’s control. We can only look at the original creators of the show (Mort Schuman and Eric Blau), and wag our fingers.

As the cast took their curtain call, I thought to myself, “If only the title of the revue were true.” If only Brel were still around to witness his legacy and how it sparked such a great deal of creativity that is evident in Sing’Theatre’s latest success.

Other Reviews

“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris – SingTheatre – Review” by Jennifer, Angloinfo

“Review: Sing’Theatre’s Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris” by Steven, The Mad Scene

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