FOR "A Jacques Brel Cabaret" at D.C. Space, director/pianist Roy Barber has left Brel's more sentimental songs about flowers and Flemish landscapes for others to sing.
Instead he has chosen some of the Belgian- born troubador's darkest, most uncompromising work, and in so doing, has shaped a strikingly contemporary comment about hate, war, aging and death, and, ultimately, love.
Like Bertolt Brecht, Brel poetically sketched the confrontations of modern life in his songs, and was particularly fascinated by the collision of the innocent individual with eternally evil society. It sounds like unrelievedly somber stuff, but because of Brel's melodic and verbal dexterity -- his songs are full of earthy detail, humor and horror -- and the stirring performances, "A Jacques Brel Cabaret" is actually an uplifting evening.
The revue has been cleverly framed with "Marathon" and "Carousel," two deceptively sweet-sounding songs, which, as Barber and company emphasize, are really about the terror and desperation of a world grown increasingly fast and huge and impersonal. Act one deals with matters personal and political, and Brel shows the two themes are intertwined in such favorites as "Marieke," "Don't Go Away" and "Sons Of." The second act, opening with an acid comment on "The Middle Class" delivered by three barflies, grows darker and darker still, with all the songs about death and aging.
The agreeable company of five area singer/actors strikes the right balance between posed melodrama and spontaneity. The troupe is anchored by Brian Davis, whose superb tenor and controlled but expressive face in his solo numbers "Tenderness" and "Next" are reason enough for going. Paula Burns has an appropriately vampy look and smoky timbre that would be more effective if she toned down her tortured chanteuse mannerisms.
Roberta Stiehm's unobtrusive choreography is sensibly scaled for the small stage. In "Timid Frieda," her movements illuminate the tale of a waif adrift in the cruel city. Barber himself remains in the background for the most part, providing firm, sober accompaniment for a well-crafted and timely show.
A JACQUES BREL CABARET -- At D.C. Space (Seventh and E streets NW) through August.