‘Brel’ Alive and Kicking, at TRTC

Jacques Brel, the one-of-a-kind songsmith whose works were adapted, translated and brought to a whole new audience with the revue JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS.

Long before you probably heard a note of his music, you might have noticed that the Belgian-born singer, songwriter and sometime actor Jacques Brel had an effortless knack for seducing the camera. Coffeehouse cool in the 50s and early 60s; suitably seedy in the 70s, his was a face that seemingly lived every lyric he ever wrote — and he was seldom snapped without one of the Gitanes that would silence him at the age of 49.

Not being even middle-school fluent in French, we came to Brel’s story-songs of “birth and death and everything in between” through the relatively rocky route of some Bowie cover versions — and from there it was a short hop to a yard-sale copy of the soundtrack album to a revue called Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

Most of us here in L’états who’ve heard anything composed by Brel (other than this mellow 1974 chart-topper) know him through the Off Broadway revue, a surprise success when it opened on the modest stage of downtown’s Village Gate in 1968. Co-starring (and with new English lyrics contributed by) Mort Shuman — one half of the great popsong partnership that brought us this and this and this — the collection of some two dozen Brel cabaret classics broke onto Broadway, became a film in 1975, and has played to audiences around the world ever since. Beginning Tuesday night, May 17, it comes to the stage of the Two River Theater as the final mainstage offering of the 2010-2011 season.

The last of the shows selected under the tenure of former Two River Theater Company artistic director Aaron Posner, Brel arrives alive and kicking in Red Bank under the stewardship of the company’s new A.D. John Dias, who’s populated the four-player ensemble (traditionally, two women and two men) with an eclectic group of young Broadway veterans. There’s kick-ass stage/screen actress and indie rocker Rona Figueroa (Miss Saigon), plus Andy Kelso (Mamma Mia), jazz  chanteuse Lindsay Mendez (Everyday Rapture) — and Forrest McClendon, who, as reported right here a couple of weeks back, has been nominated for a 2011 Tony (for his work in The Scottsboro Boys).

In charge of the cast is a man who’s also Tony’d up here in 2011 — Daniel Ostling, one of the charter members of Lookingglass Theatre Company — the Chicago-based troupe that was awarded this year’s (non-competitive) Tony award for Regional Theatre. The upperWETside Drama Desk spoke to the in-demand scenic designer, prior to the opening of his first professional show as director.

Left to right: Andy Kelso, Lindsay Mendez, Forrest McClendon and Rona Figueroa comprise the Broadway-bred ensemble of singing actors making sure that JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL…and onstage this week at Two River Theater. (Photo by Danny Sanchez)

First off, congrats are in order on the big Tony win.

DANIEL OSTLING: Well, we’re all really excited about it, but just to keep things in perspective, Lookingglass is a purely collaborative company. We all had a hand in creating new work together, but really, not too many companies have a designer like myself as part of the ensemble. The artistic director, the managing director, should be the ones who get to accept and keep the award.

And I just realized, just about an hour ago, that this is your very first professional directing gig!

Yes it is — and even though it was a little bit terrifying at first, it’s not as much of a leap as it might seem. In fact, it’s been a blast.

I’m aware that you’ve worked all over the map, including a few productions over at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, but how did it come about that you transitioned to director with this production in Red Bank? Did Two River approach you about it?

I’ve known John Dias for years — he had inquired at one point if I wanted to get involved with Candida — and he asked me to direct Brel at the same time that Amanda Dehnert (the show’s originally announced director, who bowed out for personal reasons) asked me if I’d do it…I wasn’t aware that they were both asking about the same show. When I finally agreed to it, what made me a little hesitant was that I didn’t really know Brel’s music, even though I felt that I should.

I guess you could say that Brel was always a cult figure at best over here…and he’s kind of in need of a re-introduction to the American public.

He never sold a lot of albums here —he actually never seemed all that interested in the American market — although I’m sure he was very happy to collect the royalties when somebody had a hit with one of his songs! Certainly people like David Bowie, Judy Collins, helped the rock and pop audiences to appreciate Brel, and the more you study his recordings, the more you realize how much of his work you already knew.

You must have crunched a real crash-course in Jacques Brel when you began prepping for this project yourself…what were some of the impressions you took away from Brel as a performer, and as a writer?

He’s got a lot in common with the music I grew up on — Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Springsteen. He creates these incredibly vivid characters; these shifts in the narrative — a song can turn around on itself, and you’re left re-thinking everything you just heard. It was said that he was interested in ambiguity and fuzzy edges.

There’s a lot of stuff available now on YouTube and other sources, and to watch him perform, sitting down in a suit and skinny tie, just putting the song across with tiny facial expressions…there’s something so alive, contemporary about the unflinching gaze with which he looks at these characters, who aren’t kings or queens or even necessarily heroic. They’re soldiers, butchers, working class people; a lot like the people who populate Springsteen’s songs. The songs are about the things that make us get up each morning, when we’re facing death and despair.

Those fuzzy edges that you mention were kind of re-drawn by other hands for this show. Would you agree that to a great extent our experience of Jacques Brel’s songs is filtered through a New York folk and pop sensibility…a little Brill Building instead of, you know, Brel-building? 

When you bring something into another language, there’s a certain amount that gets lost — and a lot of the songs in this show are totally different from what Brel had originally written. And we are doing this show, with this set of songs that was put together for it. But at the same time there’s a great amount of room in these songs for each person to fill in. I’ve never been interested in ‘finishing’ things for the audience…I’d rather ignite their imaginations.

Well, it looks like you’ve assembled a really dynamic ensemble of pros for this production — I can’t help but believe that each of them will be putting their own stamp on this material. 

I’ll be letting the songs, and the performers, do the lion’s share of the work here. I’m humbled by this music, by Brel’s work, and these actors.

And of course you haven’t let go of your day job, or your other night job — that of the scenic designer. What do you have in store for us there? 

All I can tell you right now is that it will be very simple — very much ‘in the theater,’ as opposed to a sense of specificity. But there’s a history to it; a very gritty, human, blood-sweat-and-tears aspect. When you’re on the ‘factory floor,’ you can feel the souls of the people who work there.

As I said, people are going to take away from these songs all sorts of different experiences. What we’re trying to create in these two hours is something they’ll all remember. Part of a social experience. In fact, going to a theater, sitting there watching and listening to a show with all those people who you don’t know, is one of the last social things that we do.

Jacques Brel begins four nights of previews Tuesday, May 17; opens Saturday, May 21, and runs through Sunday, June 5. Tickets are $35 – $61 (with a new discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability — as well as info on dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.

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