‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’ is urbane cabaret

September 18, 2012

“Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” has always known that embassies are under attack, that diplomatic and romantic relations are chronically strained and that survival is rough on every front. With its tart tunes and worldly air, the 1968 off-Broadway hit “Brel” is the kind of urbane cabaret you figure is always on view in the bigger cities here and abroad.

Double that when the production is as good as the chic and potent show at Alexandria’s MetroStage. “Brel” features the postwar songs of the Belgian-born Parisian (who died in 1978) and the fierce, weary, occasionally jaunty melodies are gusts of Continental attitude, all but sporting berets and Gauloises as they come at you. The numbers — some well-peppered with cynical wit — can be wistful. But they also can be sung through gritted teeth or with heart flayed open.

The aggressive mode is often how the songs are attacked by the top-notch cast of four singer-actors in Serge Seiden’s bristling, thoroughly assured production. Bobby Smith practically does battle in “Amsterdam,” a Brechtian chronicle of decadence, his anger methodically cresting to a bitter peak. “Sons of,” a waltz of loss, is delivered in an increasingly runaway tempo by Bayla Whitten; in Brel’s world, life spins madly, dispensing joys and sorrows in unequal measure.

Sam Ludwig is the picture of tall, mop-haired youth, clowning drunkenly with Smith during the sardonic “The Middle Class” and biting off insults in the vain “Statue.” But it’s Natascia Diaz who particularly inhabits the Brel edge. Diaz, a veteran of the 2006 off-Broadway revival, more or less keys this performance: She is an authoritative chanteuse, even when singing in French, as she does during the delectably gloomy Act II centerpiece, “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”

Diaz is also a nimble dancer, although Seiden and choreographer Matthew Gardiner move all the actors around the small set with a sense of savoir faire. The show is never strident or pushy; it exudes grace, from the confidence of its performers to Janine Sunday’s appealing contemporary costumes laced with hints of the ’60s (go-go boots, cocktail dresses, dark suits and skinny ties).

For all the grit in the lyrics, the music often swells with sentiment. The moods of Brel’s tunes are sensitively rendered by pianist-music director Jenny Cartney and the four-piece band; from dark ballads to sarcastic marches, the musicians play with verve and nuance. It’s terrific accompaniment as Smith, Whitten, Ludwig and Diaz get into the Gallic moment, setting up dark jokes and cutting through to Brel’s version of the complicated essence of life.

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

music and lyrics by Jacques Brel; conception, English lyrics and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman; directed by Serge Seiden; set design, Daniel Pinha; lights, Jessica Winfield. About two hours. Through Oct. 21 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. 800-494-8497. metrostage.org.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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