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'Jacques Brel' recalls war, love, humanity

“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” plays until Sunday, May 28, at Medford’s Collaborative Theatre, so audiences still have time to catch the musical revue. The homage to Jacques Brel’s artistic accomplishments is not to be missed.

First produced in 1968 with English translations by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, the long-running, off-Broadway show capitalized on Brel’s international popularity and his withdrawal from public performance. Brel’s music and lyrics reflect ordinary lives, aging, politics, religion and war — universal themes of the human existence.

Twenty-five of Brel’s works act as a narrative, each a story that is comedic or tragic, hopeful or despairing, the cast moving smoothly between the sets. These aren’t easy performances, and each is filled with dance, emotion and gesture that add richness and texture to the voices. Three male-female couples make up the ensemble, paired to reflect the themes of Brel’s story-songs.

The Collaborative Theatre setting of a simple cafe with striped awning and wire tables reinforces both the location and notions of Brel’s works and is ideal for this small, intimate theater. Off to the side of the cafe, the musical trio that accompanies the vocals is oh-so-French: Music Director Karl Iverson on accordion, Geoff Ridden on guitar and Steve Sutfin on percussion.

Love is one of Brel’s favorite themes, sometimes lustful, forbidden, romantic or forever lost. Love is anxiously awaited by Alex Boyles in “Mathilde” and rudely taken in “Timid Frieda.” Rebecca Campbell, Catherine Hansen and Pam Ward perform “I Loved,” the third story of the show. Their voices float, lilting with melancholic romance, no one voice overshadowing the others. In the background, the men of the cast, Boyles, Ridden, Evan Sheets and Michael Williams, are drawn in by the song of the Sirens, and at its end — to our great amusement — they are callously cast aside.

In “No Love, You’re Not Alone,” Boyles’ tenor weaves seamlessly with Campbell’s voice, Campbell giving hope and encouragement to her beloved.

Featured dancers Sarah Gore and Sheets are the youngest couple, their limbs and voices flexible and beautiful in blithe delight. Gore’s choreography is expert throughout, matching song to dance style, bringing in tap to emphasize hilarity, ballet and modern expressing fear, anxiety and hope.

Williams’ big eyes and satyr-like movements are flawless in “Jackie,” the audience chanting along, “If I could be just for one hour, cute, cute, cute, in a stupid-assed way.”

Williams and Boyles perform “Middle Class” to similar effect, the audience laughing at the pointed ridicule of youth who in turn become middle class, older and fatter like pigs, no longer Casanovas, and now reading Voltaire.

The show includes some powerful performances that are cautionary tales of the dangers of war. For American audiences in the late '60s, the show conveyed a strong anti-war message. In the ensemble performance of “The Bulls,” Boyles and Williams are two big men so bored they face off in blind anger that has no outlet but war.

“Sons of” resonates with sadness and grief, children lost to war, sweet smiles never seen again. In this piece, the voices of Hansen, Gore and Sheets rise louder and louder in the characteristic Brel-crescendo.

Sheets is spoiled by the pickings of war in “Next.” Riddens stands in judgment or temptation behind the boy, and at the end throws him to the ground — ruined.

Perhaps the most amazing work in the show is “Carousel,” which starts lightly with bright voices and joyous movements among images of cotton candy, games and circus rides. Within moments, the piece accelerates and devolves into fearful confusion. The ensemble is incredible, in perfect unison and counterpoint, increasingly frantic and terrible as chaos builds, the carousel metaphor of a world out of control, madly turning. At its end, all movement and sound stop abruptly, heart-breaking, breathless.

Ultimately though, "Jacques Brel” is about life and love.

Brel’s music and lyrics are timeless and universal, and this Collaborative Theatre show brings them home for a contemporary audience.

Directed by Susan Aversa-Orrego, Collaborative Theatre Project’s production of “Jacques Brel” has adult themes with lots of innuendo. The wheelchair accessible theater is at 500 Medford Center, across from Tinseltown. Shows are set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 25-27, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 28. Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors, and can be purchased at ctporegon.org, by calling 541-779-1055 or at the box office.

— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland. She can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Evan Sheets and Sarah Gore appear in the ensemble of 'Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,' running through Sunday at Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford. [Photo by Susan Aversa-Orrego]