STORY WRITTEN BY CHERYL THORNBURG
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Steel River Playhouse’s current production “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well … and Living in Paris,” delivers some of the most powerful and poignant music of the 20th century by one of the best songwriters of the era, whom many people have never heard of. Jacques Brel is a Belgian-born songwriter whose music covers the gamut of human emotion, from joy to anger to anguish. He wrote mostly in French or Dutch, but his songs have been translated into English by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman and covered by a diverse Who’s Who of the music world: Joan Baez , Theodore Bikel, David Bowie, Glen Campbell, Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Céline Dion, Julio Iglesias, Tom Jones, The Kingston Trio, Cyndi Lauper, Barry Manilow, Johnny Mathis, Rod McKuen, Liza Minnelli, Olivia Newton-John, Gary Puckett, The Seekers , Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, Sting, Dionne Warwick, Andy Williams and Barbra Streisand.
Some of those songs are included in this production : “Seasons In the Sun” (The Kingston Trio,) “If You Go Away” (Neil Diamond, Sting and Frank Sinatra), “Marieke,” (Judy Collins) and “If We Only Have Love,” (Barry Manilow and Johnny Mathis among others).
The original show was performed Off-Broadway in 1968 as a musical revue, but Steel River’s version has added another dimension. To give it more of a storyline, Director Gene Teruso has set it in a basement nightclub in London during the Blitz. Six characters take refuge during an attack and the songs flow naturally as they get to know each other.
Teruso has put together a first-rate cast to give life to Brel’s songs, which tell very human stories. Joseph S. Smith served as musical director and also plays The Piano Player. Other characters are Steve Carrasco (The Royal Air Pilot), Mallory DeForest (The Singer), Sandra Hartman (The Lady), Abigail Allwein (The Runaway), Allen Puy (The Gentleman) and Robert Tilley (The Taxi Driver).
There are 24 songs, each reflecting different human stories and emotions. Some of the highpoints include:
Abigail Allwein’s sweet soprano is perfect for the poignant ballad, “The Old Folks,” about a couple approaching the end of their lives. It leaves an indelible impression on your memory. Her duet, “If You Go Away” with Steve Carrasco is another memorable moment from the show.
Mallory deForest’s smooth, rich tones give depth to one of the darker songs, “My Death.”
“Sons Of,” a litany about young men lost in wartime, is delivered with passion by Sandra Hartman. Her voice is also perfect for “Marieke,” a song about lost love that she sings with Allen Puy. They also pair up for “Song For Old Lovers.”
One of Brel’s most dramatic songs, “Amsterdam,” gives Robert Tilley the chance to show off his powerful voice as he recounts the exploits of sailors on leave in Amsterdam. Tilley and deForest also deliver the heartfelt, “No Love, You’re Not Alone.”
Though many of these Brel songs seem dark, they are interspersed with upbeat, catchy group numbers like “Madeleine,” “Brussels” and “The Middle Class.” The latter, performed by Carrasco, Tilley and Joseph Smith, is hilarious, with a bawdy Vaudevillian tone.
Closing the show is “If We Only Have Love,” an anthem of hope performed by the entire cast. It’s the song that may follow you home from the theater.
The show is staged in the intimate Newberry Loft, which gives a sense of “being there,” taking shelter with the cast, especially when with the bombs-dropping sound effects periodically stop the action. Creating the atmosphere are Chris Whelan (set), Jerry Jonas (lights), Ally Boughter (costumes) and Mark Evers (sound).
IF YOU GO: “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well … and Living in Paris” continues through Sunday Oct. 4 at Steel River Playhouse, 245 E. High St. in Pottstown. Tickets are $15 to $22 and are available online at www.steelriver.org, or by calling the box office at 610-970-1199. You can choose your seat when you book online.