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Archive for Sunday, September 18, 2005

Review: ‘Jacques Brel’ cast brings 1950s Paris to life

September 18, 2005

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Put on your black turtleneck, pour an absinthe, light up a Gauloise, and get ready for an evening in a 1950s Paris cafe. Kansas University's Stage Too! has become a cabaret, and a talented ensemble of five men and five women sing dance, and act the songs of Jacques Brel, creating what director John Staniunas describes as "unity through variety."

The musical revue, "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," opened in Greenwich Village in 1968, when the Belgian Brel, well-known in Europe, was indeed as the title describes him, though he died 10 later at the age of 49. The 25 songs included in this show are very much of a time and place, singing about human experience with a distinctly Parisian melancholy, tinged with the existentialism of the time.


Cast members of "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" perform "Madeleine" during a rehearsal last week on Stage Too! in Crafton-Preyer Theatre.

Cast members of "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" perform "Madeleine" during a rehearsal last week on Stage Too! in Crafton-Preyer Theatre.

Director Staniunas claims that 70 percent of the show was created by the actors themselves, whom he challenged to find and to present the heart of their songs. And in each number, they seem to own the stage, moving with authority and authenticity. To Brel himself, the lyrics were more important than the music, and in this production both the ensemble and the soloists reflect the lyrics in their actions.

The show's best moments were the big ensemble numbers like "Madeleine," "Brussels," and "Carousel," where Staniunas's choreographic skill was evident, carried out with precision and verve by the cast. But individual performances were nicely done as well, with a range of good solo voices from the Edith Piaf-like delivery of Andi Porter to Lauren Marshall's more operatic timbre.

Acting range as well was pleasantly varied from the sardonic drunkenness of Patrick Lewallen (who remarkably resembles Jacques Brel) and Lawrence Henderson in "The Middle Class" (": are like pigs") to Dylan Hilpman's cavalier dismissal of successive bridal candidates in "Bachelor's Dance." And Eric Avery's qualifications as dance captain were clearly evident in his every move onstage.

Past Event
"Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"

  • When: Wednesday, September 21, 2005, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Crafton-Preyer Theater, Murphy Hall, 1530 Naismith Dr., Lawrence
  • Cost: $10 - $18
  • More on this event....

Scenic design by Mark Reaney featured a 20-foot-tall Eiffel Tower, effectively lighted in varying colors by Robert Sturner. A white piano was placed just downstage from the tower, and was incorporated into the action as the cast sat or leaned on it, or joined pianist Egle Perkumaite back-to-back on the bench. Perkumaite, a Fulbright Visiting Scholar from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, provided music throughout the evening, joined by Barbara Puckett on keyboard, with occasional instruments - trombone, violin, guitar - added by the cast.

The evening creates a mood, a feeling - the "unity" described by Staniunas - and everything in the production is in its service, from the smoky haze courtesy of a fog machine to the succession of graphics projected onto a scrim upstage: sometimes gothic arches, sometimes Picasso's work, sometimes moon, stars, trees. It all comes together with Brel's bittersweet lyrics and the energy and thoughtfulness of a capable cast. If you missed the scene in postwar, pre-Beatles Paris, it's not too late to live it on KU's Stage Too!

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