It took nine months before I had the opportunity to park my fanny in one of The Zipper Theatre's very comfy twin automobile back seats (safety belts still attached) for the exhilarating pleasure of taking in director Gordon Greenberg's emotional carousel ride better known as the Off-Broadway revival of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, but I'm sure it will be considerably less time before I'm plunking down a few bucks to see it again. A collection of songs that are classic yet still somewhat obscure (at least in this country) are performed by a terrific cast that includes Robert Cuccioli and Gay Marshall, who have been there from the start, and newcomers Jayne Paterson (who had been serving as an understudy for both female roles), Constantine Maroulis and Rick Hip-Flores.
An important addition to the 1960's trend of giving musicals really long titles (How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter…), the original Jacques Brel… opened in 1968 at the historic Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which is now a CVS Pharmacy. (Thank you, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.) The Belgian-born singer/songwriter had first gained international attention in 1957 with "Quand on a que l'amour" ("If We Only Have Love") and soon his knack for composing both captivating melodies and catchy tunes with story-telling lyrics that poetically expound on love, life, war and class (or sometimes just drops their drawers in mockery of the whole thing) fueled a healthy and acclaimed career until his death in 1978.
The English translations used in Jacques Brel… are by Americans Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, who conceived the original production as a cabaret revue sung on the small Village Gate stage. Greenberg's version, with choreography by Mark Dendy, is more theatrical; staging many of the numbers with a zesty and good-natured sense of anarchy, while allowing the more dramatic moments to linger in heart-clutching simplicity. Although enjoying a drink at The Zipper Theatre's funky and atmospheric lounge is always a good excuse to arrive early for performances, it is especially right for this production, which set designer Robert Bissinger dresses in cluttered antique store elegance. Though the evening is composed primarily of solos, cast members frequently remain on stage in lighting designer Jeff Croiter's shadowy background, providing mood-enhancing tableaux.
The versatility, comic sense and acting chops of Robert Cuccioli are put to extraordinary use throughout the evening, as he interprets songs with great depth and sharp wit. He's hilarious in "Jackie", appearing as a disillusioned straight-lace longing for a taste of the trashier side of life, and "Girls and Dogs", singing mock-poetics in tribute to canine unconditional love. He can move you to tears with "Songs For Old Lovers", dance a jaunty lick in "Funeral Tango" and roar with dramatic abandon in "Amsterdam", delivering outstanding vocals and superb lyric phrasing.
Also outstanding is Gay Marshall, a wisp of a chanteuse who sings with a girlish smile and womanly soul. From her lips, the maddening cycles of life, as exemplified in two deceptively pretty waltzes – "Sons Of" and "Carousel" – spin to heart-pounding climaxes. The passionate joy she brings to "My Childhood" and the pain of "Marieke" are dizzying in their impact. Marshall is a treasure chest of authenticity in this production and she makes it seem so effortless.
Jayne Paterson and Constantine Maroulis had been in the show a little over two weeks when I attended. Dressed in a brown mini with long, mod-styled tresses and thickly lined eyes, Paterson seems to have arrived straight from the original '68 production. The look and her pretty soprano work especially well for her in "I Loved" and "Timid Frieda", where she playfully portrays two women of diverse experience with men. Her voice has a sweet purity for "Old Folks" and a fine mounting intensity for "My Death."
Constantine Maroulis certainly has gained a loyal following since coming to national attention on television's American Idol. At intermission the woman sitting next to me let me know she's come to see him four times already in the brief period he's spent in the cast. His puppy-dog charm is put to good use in the comic "Madeleine" as a continually stood-up would-be lover and "The Bulls", as a weekend toreador trying to be majestic. He knows how to play an audience and his boyish singing voice proves swoon-worthy but he doesn't quite display the acting ability needed for deeper lyrics like "The Statue", sung by the spirit of a young fallen soldier whose image is proudly displayed in his hometown, or "Next" a nightmare image of a virgin soldier having his first sexual experience in an army whorehouse. It's not a bad performance by any means, and his tousled appeal is very apparent, but he rarely finds textures in this complex material that digs beyond the surface.
Also new to the cast is music director Rick Hip-Flores, prominently appearing charmingly geeky at piano as he leads a three-piece ensemble and spiritedly joins in on the occasional vocal.
Jacques Brel… is not only alive and well at The Zipper Theatre, but it's positively flourishing.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Jayne Paterson and Constantine Maroulis
Center: Jayne Paterson, Robert Cuccioli, and Gay Marshall
Bottom: Constantine Maroulis