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Musical revue 'Jacques Brel' opens at Collaborative Theatre

Singer and songwriter Jacques Brel lived between April 1929 and October 1978. He performed literate, thoughtful and theatrical songs that generated a large, devoted following in Belgium and France initially, and later in America and around the globe. He made his U.S. debut in 1963 at Carnegie Hall. 

Though he recorded most of his songs in French, he became a huge influence on English-speaking musicians such as David Bowie, Alex Harvey, Leonard Cohen, Marc Almond and American poet Rod McKuen. Many translations of his songs were recorded by top performers in the U.S., such as Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles, Judy Collins, The Kingston Trio, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams. McKuen began writing English lyrics to Brel’s tunes, and The Kingston Trio recorded “Seasons in the Sun.”

Brel himself became one of the best-selling recording artists of his time, touring countries all over the world. Then in 1966, after a series of farewell concerts in Paris, he dropped out of sight in the music world. Far from finished, however, he went on to become a successful actor and director in French-speaking countries.

The genesis of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" sprang from Brel's decision to stop performing his music live.

Songwriter Mort Shuman and playwright Eric Blau translated Brel's lyrics, capturing the artist's pathos, power and wit in a musical revue that opened in 1968 off-Broadway at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The revue ran for four years, generating international and regional productions, as well as a West End production and off-Broadway revival. A film adaptation was released in 1975.

"Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" will open Friday, May 12, at Collaborative Theatre Project, 555 Medford Center, Medford. An opening-night reception will be held at 6:45 p.m. There will be live music by accordion player Michele Boddecker Scheffler, and an exhibit of artwork by John Lambie.

Shows are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 12-13, Thursdays through Saturdays, May 18-20 and May 25-27, and 1:30 p.m. Sundays, May 14, 21 and 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.

"Called the master of modern chanson, Brel has an amazing amount of work to his credit," says Director Susan Aversa-Orrego. "It's especially amazing because he died when he was only 49. Kind of a loner, he taught himself to play guitar and compose songs and began playing the cafe circuit in France, which led to record deals.

"During the '60s, Brel was a contemporary," she says. "That's when he lived and was part of the music scene. Now, most audiences have heard of him but haven't experienced his music."

Collaborative Theatre Project's ensemble of singers and actors features Alex Boyles, Rebecca Campbell, Catherine Hansen, Sarah Gore, Geoff Ridden, Evan Sheets, Pam Ward and Michael Williams. Live music will be performed by Karl Iverson and Boyles on keys, Steve Sutfin on percussion, Ridden on guitar and ukulele and Sheets, also on ukulele. Choreography is by Sarah Gore.

"We've taken some of Brel's quotes and observations about life to use as narrative for the show," Aversa-Orrego says. "There isn't any real 'book' for the two-act revue like a traditional musical would have."

Brel’s songs are lush and harsh. Delicate songs about aging ("Old Folks") give way to the terrifying experience of being inducted into the army during wartime ("Next"). The beautiful world of "Carousels" careens out of control and is a statement about the lack of control we have over our lives.

Aversa-Orrego notes that the show “is a compilation of Brel’s life experiences. As a young man, he was the outcast ("Jackie"), he experienced the horrors of war ("Next" and "The Bulls") and the pain of loving and losing ("Alone"). There aren’t really any aspects of life that he left untouched. The beauty of the songs is their simplicity. They're powerful, raw and lyrical."

Evan Sheets and Sarah Gore appear in the ensemble of 'Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,' running through May 28 at Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford. [Photo by Susan Aversa-Orrego]