Joie de vivre 

Jacques Brel is alive and well and living at the Alliance

If you want to celebrate the culture of another country, roundly insult it on a national level. Then wait a few years.

Such is the case with France, which opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and endured months of denunciations and "Freedom Fries"-style protests. Four years later, french fries have reverted to their original name, and Francophilia is all over pop culture, especially on the high end. For the film Paris, Je t'aime, 21 filmmakers collaborated on a love letter to the French capital, and you see more valentines in movies as diverse as the cartoon feature Ratatouille and the political documentary Sicko.

The Alliance Theatre embraces French artistry and kisses it on both cheeks with Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, directed by artistic director Susan V. Booth. For the revue of songs by the world-renowned balladeer, the Alliance converts its Hertz Stage into a lush, French-style cabaret, complete with vintage posters of cancan dancers, gold and red-velvety color patterns, and even table seating and a working bar. Having the opening-night ushers dressed like the late Marcel Marceau seemed a little much, though. Hit us over the head with a baguette, why don't you?

The touristy touches might create a misperception about Brel for the uninitiated. You might place him as one of those suave, throaty boulevardiers, like Maurice Chevalier crooning, "Thank 'eaven for Leetle Girls" in Gigi. You could put Brel in that camp, but his work transcends French stereotypes; Alliance dramaturg Michael Evenden compares Brel's YouTube clips to "James Dean singing French." The Alliance's Jacques Brel at once conveys the universality of Brel's music while living up to that uniquely French joie de vivre.

The show made its off-Broadway debut in 1968, back when the title Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was literally true. (Born and raised in Belgium, Brel lived most of his adult life in Paris, where he died in 1978.) Eric Blau and Mort Shuman translated the songs into English and for the 2006 revival added a few not inappropriate references to 9/11 and Paris Hilton. Despite being a revue, Jacques Brel stands apart from the vogue for jukebox-style musicals about the Top 40 hits of pop stars. Because Brel's songs are so obscure to American audiences – and because his lyrics are so rich and complex, his melodies so hypnotic – the music seizes your attention with far more urgency than any nostalgia act.

Jacques Brel's cast of four proves magnetic while also life-sized and ingratiating. The younger duo, Lauren Kling and Craig A. Meyer, frequently sings the "ingénue" tunes about blossoming love and the fresh sting of heartbreak, while Courtenay Collins and Joseph Dellger more often sing the "seasoned" songs of regret and rueful pleasures.

Brel's concerns of love and hard-won wisdom repeat throughout the show. Early on, Meyer speculates on the girl he will marry in "Bachelor's Dance," spinning a charming ideal of marital love while remarking, "No, it isn't you," to women in the audience. He waits fruitlessly for a girlfriend in the zany "Madeleine," then, near the end of Act One, all but crumples in "Fanette," pouring all the feelings of a failed affair into a few minutes of song.

Kling's voice tends to fade into the background during the group songs, but when alone in the spotlight she warbles irresistibly, especially in the passionate entreaty, "You're Not Alone." Dellger seems to most often speak for Brel's own personality, particularly in amusing first-person songs such as "Jacky." He may be a little hammy when he belts out the operatic "Amsterdam," but then, you kind of want grand gestures and forceful vocals from a song about sailors and whoring.

Collins stands first among equals. For the chorus of the French-language "Ne Me Quitte Pas" ("Don't Leave Me"), perhaps the evening's highlight, she repeats the title phrase like both an appeal to a lover and a wrenching accusation to the heavens. Standing before an oversized microphone stand, she evokes the likes of such timeless singers as Edith Piaf or Lotte Lenya while being uniquely sexy.

Jacques Brel features numerous bittersweet, smoky ballads, but also plenty of humorous numbers with manic rhythms, reminiscent of Kurt Weill or the soundtrack of Cabaret. In "Ca Va," sung from the perspective of a mischievous Satan, Collins' makeup and lighting even evokes Cabaret's Joel Grey for an instant. "Brussels" begins as a madcap, vaudeville-style glimpse of the dawn of the 20th century, then turns increasingly angry, holding the earlier generation accountable for World War I. Some of the political twists, like the anti-war conclusion to "The Bulls," come across as showboating – and probably always did.

The cast knows the little touches that play on the audience's emotions, like making a dramatic pause before a final line, or saying the last words rather than singing them. Music director and pianist Michael Fauss, along with Mark Bynum on bass and Butch Sievers on drums, give the compositions a "clean" sound that rarely draws attention to itself, although the childlike mix of toy pianos and xylophones on "I Loved You" suggests the innocence in Kling's singing.

Some of the most affecting songs approach death with clear eyes and little sentiment. In "Statue," Meyer's deceased soldier compares the idealized laments of strangers to his inglorious life: "Me, who only prayed to God when my teeth were killing me." Dellger finds plenty of humor in "Funeral Tango" as a dead man vents his indignation at the crocodile tears of his friends and family paying their last "respects."

For a plotless revue, Jacques Brel presents a surprisingly vivid sense of individual characters, partly because Booth so effectively brings out the singers' personalities and the dramatic arcs of the songs. Some numbers introduce us to specific people, like Kling's deceptively mousy "Timid Frieda," and even a bullfight's main attraction in "The Bulls": "On Sundays, the bulls get so bored/When asked to show off for us."

In a way, a character you see most often in Jacques Brel is yourself. Brel's songs tap into such a depth of life experience that you can find facets of your own personality and history in an image or turn of phrase. Only a few songwriters, no matter how catchy their hooks, can speak so directly to their listeners. Collectively, the songs of Jacques Brel make a ringing call to live life to the fullest – and I suspect the French would endorse that as a viable national credo.

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