Editors' pick

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

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Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris photo
Christopher Banks

Editorial Review

‘Jacques Brel’: Urbane cabaret at MetroStage
By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, September 19, 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.

'Ne me quitte pas,' Brel sang, and Natascia Diaz listened
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, August 31, 2012

Jacques Brel is no longer alive, well or living in Paris. But the Broadway show bearing his name -- and featuring his great French chansons -- is starting a run this week at Alexandria’s MetroStage.

“Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” swept Broadway in 1968 with English translations by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau of the melancholic and sardonic songs the Belgium-born Brel penned. Picture a dimly lit, smoky cafe where Frenchmen inhale Galoises and sing of lost love, disillusionment, pain and sorrow, and you get the picture. Brel was the voice of a generation, and his songs, including “Ne me quitte pas” and “Amsterdam,” made him a worldwide sensation. These days, heartfelt renditions of his poetic music -- covered over the years by Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Nina Simone and Sting -- are capturing the imaginations of a new generation.

So says Natascia Diaz, the triple-threat performer who appeared in the 2006 off-Broadway revival and is performing in the MetroStage production.

“Each generation has their songs they listen to and they cherish,” Diaz says. “Jacques Brel seems to be one of those that anytime someone brings him up people love it. My experience in 2006 with the multitude of ages who came and were affected was just so enormous. We had small kids, teenagers, 20-somethings up to folks in their 60s and 70s.”

At MetroStage, Diaz will be taking on the songs of the more mature of the two women in the four-person cast. “I have grown out of the songs that I sang before and started to become interested in taking on the songs with more of the irony that Brel has,” she says. “I can incorporate a more ironic streak with those songs. I’m less innocent, more grown up, if you will.”

It’s no surprise that Diaz, the daughter of an opera-singer father and a ballerina-turned-psychologist mother, grew up to be a musical-theater maven. And she’s no stranger to Washington theater audiences. She’s somewhat of a regular at Signature Theater, where she has performed her solo cabaret act and last season starred in “Brother Russia,” and in 2009 won a Helen Hayes Award for her role in the Scottish punk-rock musical “Rooms” at MetroStage.

For Diaz, singing with an accent is a snap, but singing in French -- as she does with Brel’s most well-known song, “Ne me quitte pas” -- proved a challenge. So she turned to her parents for help.

“My father sang in five different languages and my mother speaks five different languages,” she says. “I went to my mother because translations make the difference between the intent and the poetry in any language. . . . I basically learned the song phonetically, and I had my mother explain the images.”

It has been six years since Diaz performed these Brel chansons -- “Marieke,” “Songs for Old Lovers,” “Old Folks” -- so holistically. But in that time, Diaz says, she has “become a big fan of the simplicity and nakedness in the way Brel performed his own material himself. . . . I’ve spent six years with this material, and I’m still uncovering stuff in it.”