Issue 545 : March 9, 2006 - March 15, 2006

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris resurfaces at the Zipper

The Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel was Europe’s archangel of the underworld. He was also a performer of overwhelming intensity: As he channeled one desperate outcast after another—winos, whores, sleazy sailors, the luckless unloved—his long limbs thrashed and his lips quivered hungrily. Brel looked like a one-man Grand Guignol controlled by some mad puppeteer. To this singer-songwriter, life was about taking risks—and why not, when the carousel was whirling ever faster, soon to crash? His certainly did: In 1978, the chain-smoking pleasure-seeker died of lung cancer at 49.

By then, he was famous in America, thanks to his oft-recorded “If You Go Away” (“Ne me quitte pas”) as well as Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, an arty Greenwich Village revue that had exploded into a phenomenon. A loose staging of two dozen Brel songs, it ran at the Village Gate from 1968 to 1972, transferred to Broadway, and wound up as a film in 1975. With English translations by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau, the songs were quickly adopted by Judy Collins (“Sons of,” “Marieke”), David Bowie (“My Death”), Shirley Bassey (“If We Only Have Love”) and lots of bad cabaret singers, who reduced them to pretentious Euro-kitsch.

But Jacques Brel rises again, this time in the intimate Zipper Theater. There, four gifted actors will live Brel’s psychodramas before your eyes: Robert Cuccioli, the swashbuckling star of Jekyll & Hyde, laces his shameless overkill with tongue-in-cheek; Rodney Hicks led an HIV support group in Rent; Natascia Diaz played the sister of an accused rapist in Oz; and Gay Marshall, a real-life American in Paris, starred in a solo show about Piaf, not to mention the French edition of Cats. After singing Andrew Lloyd Webber, it’s no wonder Marshall’s anxious to dig into Brel. “He puts real life on the platter in a way that’s so uncompromising, it goes right through you,” she explains.

Director Gordon Greenberg’s credits start with an appearance, at age 12, in an acting-camp version of this very show. He grew up entranced by Brel’s delicious sliminess, and by his guts: “Nobody else was writing about the homeless or what happens to your body as you get older,” Greenberg observes. “Every song is so juicy.” The director has punctuated them with strains of twangy rock and bits of the original French lyrics, which Brel spat out in his guttural Flemish accent. The industrial-looking Zipper, some of whose seats are from trashed cars, should suit suit Brel’s sordid urban world. “It’s the most beautiful Bohemian-chic junkyard you’ve ever seen,” Greenberg says. As for the human wreckage in the songs, out of it come the ghosts of people who devoured life to the limit. And that, finally, is what the show celebrates.

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is at the Zipper Theater. See Off Broadway.