Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
I felt like I had four new best friends when I left the Zipper Theatre on Friday, after seeing the superbly talented, astonishingly intimate performances of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. By far one of the best performed productions in New York, this review is both inviting and estranging in its interpretation of the French composer’s music.
The spirit of the music comes from the 60s, when Brel was living in Paris and disillusionment pervaded the world. The songs touch on love and loneliness, life and death, and the general state of humanity in the world.
Performed in the delightfully small Zipper Theatre, the stage is mere inches from the audience. The logistics enhance the show, but it is the performances that truly create the atmosphere of the evening. The ensemble consists of four supremely talented actors, all of whom shift seamlessly the story of one song to another. The devotion that they give their roles is admirable, as is the intensity. Robert Cuccioli gives a heartfelt and heartbreaking performance. Dressed in a dark suit and skinny tie, he is an everyman, representing the weary spirit of Brel’s melodies, singing of past love and future dreams, neither of which are fulfilled. His rendition of the song, “Jackie,” complete with the abashed wiping away of tears, is so honest in its sadness that members of the audience are moved to tears as well. The bitter, self-deprecating desperation of “Funeral Tango,” when he imagines his own funeral in the future, is admirable and pitiable.
Jim Stanek, the other male in the ensemble, sings more of youth and ambition, but also of love and hope. He symbolizes the youth of war, who unfortunately progress to exploited soldiers. He sings of the excitement of his “Last Supper” before going to battle, and later his rendition of “The Statue” serves as a musical kick in the stomach and slap in the face. He depicts the spirit of a dishonest, exploited soldier who is forever immortalized is both frantic and forlorn.
If Cuccioli represents past love looking back, Natascia Diaz represents future love looking forward. This lovely actress embodies youth and beauty, complete with large, dark searching eyes underneath thick cut bangs. Her performance of “I Loved,” which reminisces of the heat and then cooling of love and passion is wan and wistful but it is her rendition of “The Old Folks” that truly shows her talent. She is so quiet, but so powerful. And when she sings “My Death,” kneeling alone in the dark, she is absolutely mesmerizing.
The older of the women, Tamra Hayden provides the most understated – and compelling – performance of the evening. A small woman with a big voice, she absolutely embodies the emotion of every song she sings, whether she is kicking her legs youthfully as she sings, “My Childhood” or wandering the stage, mourning the deaths of young men in “Sons Of.” Her show stopping eleven o’clock number, “Carousel,” touches on the memory of youth and excitement as well as the chaos of simply living in the world, the pace increasing with each verse as the stage is transformed from a haven of music and love to chaos and destruction.
The show has little to no plot, and the main theme of the evening is nostalgia. The actors are dressed to resemble the sixties, and the stage is filled with antique furniture of days past. Sofas and daybeds are moved during the songs, where the actors remain onstage when others are singing, retreating to sip from scotch and wine and occasionally provide background melodies.
Despite the hope that pervades the melodies, this is not a happy show. Nor is it a sad one. It is simply a show about life. The night begins with “Le Diable (Ça Va),” which states that “men kill each other willingly, then pray for peace in loud laments,” and it ends with the song, “If We Only Have Love.” Beginning quietly and building into a powerful, rousing melody, the song fills the theatre with hope. However, despite this hope, this is not a show with a happy ending. It is a story without an ending. The subjects of the melodies – love, hope, and life – go on.
Jacques Brel provides pure quality entertainment, which comes from pure, quality talent. And that is something that is very rare nowadays.