'Brel' showcases OSW's provocative talents

Jacques Brel is very much alive and well.

This new presentation of Oregon Stage Works again showcases what OSW does so well &

present entertaining yet provocative material. No one listening to "Brel" can remain unaffected &

its music and lyrics simply grab you.

"Brel" is a musical review. No book, no individual characters, no dramatic arc, just the songs, and in no particular order. Jaunty melodies collide with reflections on old age and dying. Wry commentaries on love and passion bump up against scathing social criticism.

Brel's intelligent, complex lyrics and haunting melodic lines were little known in the U.S. until "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" burst onto the scene in 1968, with translations of Brel's French lyrics by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. The show ran for four years at the Village Gate nightclub in Greenwich Village and became an international hit. Some songs are very well known, like "Carousel," and "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and the immensely popular "If We Only Have Love." Others were introduced to American audiences only in the Blau/Shuman review and remain fairly obscure.

Jacques Brel comes out of that European tradition of the cabaret and the music hall. His contemporaries were Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour, his work is the product of Europe's turbulent 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's.

Brel was the ultimate "outsider." He was born in Belgium in 1929, to a French-speaking but Flemish family in the northern part of the country. Belgium has always been a deeply divided country. The northern half speaks Flemish, with a culture and language that is close to Dutch. The southern half is French-speaking and its culture and language mirrors provincial France. The French-speakers have traditionally been contemptuous of the Flemish. Add to this the fact that Belgium was the front-line battleground in both World War I and II, occupied by the Germans in both wars.

In the late 40's, Brel gave up his family's comfortable bourgeois lifestyle to dive into the post-war, French-speaking Catholic humanist movement. His early songs are optimistic, wry, sentimental and quite gentle. Later, after moving to Paris in the mid-50's, his work became edgy, more acidly humorous, less tolerant of life's hypocrisies.

Raised in occupied Belgium during World War II, he moved to a France torn apart during its devastating and draining wars in Algeria and Indochina. Much of Brel's music is stridently anti-war and scathing of the politics of war. No wonder then that his lyrics resonated in the U.S. of the 60's and Viet Nam and now resonate once again with a whole new audience.

While "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well"&

166;." doesn't attempt to put Brel's songs in chronological order, there is an obvious divide between the Catholic-humanist Brel of the early 50's and the later Brel, cynically commenting on the human condition. Obviously, the show's closing number "If We Only Have Love" belongs to early, optimistic Brel, while the show's opening "Marathon" ("Les Flamandes" in the original French) is very much the later, cynical Brel. The order of songs in the show bounces back and forth between Brel's two extremes.

This OSW presentation is slick, entertaining and stunningly professional. The production is conceived and directed by Doyne Mraz, long-time artistic director of the Los Altos Conservatory Theatre in the Bay Area. Mraz has used a graffiti-splashed backdrop and effectively chosen slides of old photographs to emphasize the times and places of Brel's lyrics. The actual scenic design is by Brandon Schilling with lighting by Roger Graves. Sound design and projections are by Nick Berch.

The cast, as in the original off-Broadway show, is two men and two women. Erik Connelly, Joelle Graves, Roger Graves and Tamara Marston. Each brings something unique. Joelle Graves and her husband Roger Graves worked with Mraz for years at Los Altos Conservatory Theatre. Connelly is a trained professional, also from the Bay Area, who has recently returned to performing. Marston is a long-time Rogue Valley resident on the music scene with a beautiful voice and an expressive style.

OSW's production uses just two musicians, Bryan Jeffs on percussion and musical director Laurie Anne Hunter on keyboard.

"Jacques Brel is Alive and Well"&

166;.." plays at OSW from September 27 through October 14 and again from October 26 through November 4. Evening performances are at 8 pm with Sunday matinees at 2 pm. For ticket information, call 482-2334.

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