DramaWorks at Florida State College Jacksonville, South Campus, presented a four-day run during November 13 -16, 2014 of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris,” a musical featuring the work of the Belgian songwriter and singer.

Over the years, we have seen a number of unique plays and musicals staged by DramaWorks, which has brought our community many exciting selections. The Brel musical, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris,” debuted off-Broadway in 1968 and ran for over 1,800 performances. Brel wrote and sang in French, but the musical was almost all in English thanks to the translation and production concept of Eric Blau and Mort Shuman.

Brel, who was born in 1929, began his career as a cabaret performer in the early 1950s, which led to international acclaim as a concert and recording artist, known for his poetic and often meditative lyrics. He retired from the concert stage in 1967, and launched a successful career in film as an actor and director, which ended with his untimely death from cancer in 1978. As we entered the Wilson Center and looked around, we would guess that many members of the audience, judging from their apparent age, did not know much about Mr. Brel and his music, although there were others who were no doubt fans. The Dual Critics were also divided; the male half had been stationed in France in the ‘50s and actually saw Brel in a concert at the Alhambra Theatre in Paris, while the female half was experiencing Brel’s work for the first time in any form.

Brel wrote songs that told stories, stories that were sad and pensive, and songs that were happy as well. Death, war, and the many phases of love were topics that he carefully encased in melodies, often ending, sometimes abruptly, with an unexpected twist. Careful listening is the key to the many moods and thoughts shared by the songwriter.

While most performances of this musical have only four performers, FSCJ Director Ken McCulough cast eight students who performed to perfection, singing with such clarity and feeling that we could understand every word.

The full scale production used the entire stage, with steps on both sides leading to a catwalk. The rear wall of the set, which stretched across the stage, was a large movie screen with changing projected images related to the songs. The effect was that of a dream-like travelogue, mirroring a span of time that ranged from distant eras to the recent past, in both color and black and white.

The Scenic, Lighting, and Projection Design by Johnny Pettegrew was, as always, very professional. The Costume Crew (Camala Pitts and Dorinda Quiles) had the four ladies dressed in slacks and casual, modest jersey tops, while the men mostly wore trousers in neutral colors, shirts with long sleeves, and vests and jackets. For the song, “Amsterdam,” Jeremy Mangal wore a peacoat and seaman’s cap, while Richard Rosado donned a bullfighter’s cape for “The Bulls.”

The evening was an emotional roller coaster ride, with slow moody numbers mixed with others causing us to tap our feet. Two very lively selections were “Brussels” and “Carousel” with Sara Girard and the ensemble. One of the most poignant compositions entitled “The Old Folks,” with Jennifer Lin Sykes, painted a portrait of an older couple in a bedroom; they do not die but one day put their heads down and go to sleep.

Regrettably, the musical does not include two of Brel’s most famous songs: “Ne me quitte pas” (Don’t Leave Me) and “a Valse à Mille Temps” (The Waltz in 1,000 Time).

A remarkable band played all the music behind a screen on a second level at the rear of the stage. Led by Musical Director Zeek Smith (also on Keyboard), they included Keatin Cecrie (Percussion), Jon-Michael Gyland (Brass), Marcinko Orozco (Keyboard), Nick Despres (Drums), Damon Martin (Bass), and Caitlyn Wamack (Flute).

The Production Team included Robert Allison (Sound Designer), Ruben Civilus (Properties), Dr. Carole Clifford (Vocal Director), Emily Kritzman (Stage Manager), Kayla Beadle and Morgan Holbrook (Assistant Stage Managers), Talani Torres (Choreographer), and Robert Rupp (Scene Shop Supervisor).

The ensemble that made Brel come to life for us included;
Josh Andrews              Nicole Gibson
Jeremy Mangal           Sara Girard
Bryan Martins             Elise Money
Richard Rosado         Jennifer Lin Sykes

It was a very entertaining evening of music, featuring a cast with beautiful voices who skillfully portrayed the characters within Brel’s lyrics. The entire ensemble joined hands and closed the show with one of his most beloved songs, “If We Only Have Love,” as this concert for true lovers of song came to a glorious end.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.