The cabaret revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which is currently being staged by the Webster Conservatory of Theatre Arts, is nothing if not resilient. It would seem that no two productions are ever quite the same. The song order changes, the songs themselves change, and the number of performers changes (usually four; here, seven). This current Brel bears little in common with the landmark original version that was staged off-Broadway at the Village Gate 40 years ago.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. To the contrary: It speaks to the enduring nature of these songs that, however told, their stories continue to engage young audiences who perhaps have never even heard of the Belgian troubadour who wrote them. These lyrics are filled with yearning and fantasy, heartbreak and hope. What a cast of characters we meet: covetous Madeleine, timid Frieda, duplicitous Fanette. We hear from naive young soldiers and wizened old sailors. Even the occasional statue and corpse takes to song. The passing of time is a frequent motif, as Brel's translated lyrics recall the first half of the twentieth century, traveling across decades and seasons. Just as Shakespeare wrote about the seven ages of man, Brel takes us through the journey of life and even into the unknown realm of death. David Reavis' circular scenic design draws on the circularity of existence, a theme that is summarized in the climactic "Carousel."
The Conservatory has reunited the same gifted creative team — director David Caldwell, musical director Neal Richardson, choreographer Ellen Isom — that enjoyed tremendous success with inventive student productions of the musicals Violet and A New Brain. For the most part, Caldwell treats the evening as an ensemble piece. In Act One, for instance, the cast of four women and three men almost never leaves the stage. But Caldwell also approaches the show more as theater than as cabaret. He has staged these songs to within an inch of their accordions. The seven students are so busy "acting" that only rarely are they able to establish the kind of direct contact with the audience that gives Jacques Brel its resonant power. Would that the performers acted the songs a little less and sang them a little more.
But as I say, this material is resilient. To be exposed to Brel's bitter, sensuous, intensely emotional world, either for the first time or anew, is to have your senses made more acute. And that is always an enriching experience.