Never heard of Jacques Brel before?

What about Frank Sinatra? Ray Charles? David Bowie? Petula Clark? In their showbiz careers, they all performed songs by Brel — a Belgian singer-songwriter who, as the title of this musical revue implies, spent a good chunk of his adult life in Paris.

Because Brel wrote and performed primarily in French, he is best known in translation in the English-speaking world.  Remember that old Terry Jacks’ Can-con classic “Seasons in the Sun”? That was originally a Brel song called “Le Moribund”.  

Conceived by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, Jacques Brel presents 25 songs interspersed with commentary by Brel. It debuted at a  Greenwich Village theatre in 1968, and was an instant hit. It’s enjoyed several revivals since then,  and has played to rave reviews in numerous cities around the world.

It’s being presented in Regina by Golden Apple Theatre. It’s the company’s inaugural production, and it’s on at Artesian on 13th until Nov. 28. Directed by Geoffrey Whynott, with musical accompaniment by pianist Hillary Sametz, Jacques Brel stars Golden Apple principals Robert Ursan (pictured above) and Andorlie Hillstrom, along with Jeff Irving and Ingrid Nilson (pictured below).

Staging for this theatre-in-the-round production is relatively modest, with a couple of bistro style chairs and a table with a vase of flowers.  That helps keep the focus on Brel’s songs, which is as it should be, although the performers do dance on occasion and engage in other bits of theatrical interplay to enhance the revue’s dramatic impact.

Brel was born in 1929. At that point, Belgium was still recovering from the devastating destruction and deprivation of WWI, only to fall headlong into the Great Depression and a second global conflagration that caused even more death and despair. Not surprisingly, many of the songs in the revue harken back to that dark era of European history and the general theme of death.  

Overall, though, love is the theme that pre-occupies Brel the most. Not the light and frothy type of love that we usually see in Hollywood movies, either. Rather, as often as not, the love that’s explored remains unrequited, or is otherwise tragically, although not necessarily fatally, flawed.

Throughout the show, which runs for two hours with an intermission, there are many changes in pace, mood and structure which help the performers hold the audience’s attention. Each performer gets the opportunity to shine in solos, but they also perform in different combinations from duets to the excellent four-person harmonies of the show-stopper “Carousel”.

In the intimate space, the performers do a fine job of engaging with the audience and modulating their voices to convey the necessary emotion without overwhelming the space or being drowned out in the more tender numbers by the piano accompaniment.

Brel died of cancer in 1977. And while some of his songs have aged better than others, the revue does convey the breadth of his genius. As an added bonus, Ursan performs two songs (“Marieke” and “La Chanson des Vieux Amants”) in their original Dutch and French without translation. It’s not like we’re magically transported back to the cafes and cabarets where Brel performed. But we do get a taste of what it might have been like to see Brel when he was alive, and well, and living in Paris.

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