I Am Never Merry When I Hear Sweet Music

This is a decidedly atypical year at Stratford in that there are four musicals on offer, one at each theatre (perhaps five, if you count As You Like It as a musical, which arguably you should). I don’t know if this is just an accident or reflects the taste of Des McAnuff, the artistic director, best known as the creator of Jersey Boys, but whatever the reason might be, this season’s a real toe-tapper.

The Patterson’s contribution to this choral cavalcade is Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris. Brel was the master of sweet sorrow, the song about loves failed and false that somehow makes you fall in love again, and any opportunity to hear his songs sung well is one that should be seized. The show isn’t exactly a musical, in that it has no book and no real story, but isn’t exactly a concert or review in that the individual songs are not merely sung but acted, and while there isn’t a story there is a structure to how the songs are arranged, and a faint through-line can be discerned for each of the singers as well.

I’m not a huge fan of the English translations; some songs have dated badly in English, some simply don’t translate well, and some of the resonances are downright bizarre (two allusions to “The Star Spangled Banner?”). But the music itself is marvelous, and some of the songs (“La Chanson de Jacky,” for example, or “La Fanette”) translate beautifully. And, most important, this is an opportunity to see the songs not merely sung but performed.

Performance, the creation of characters behind the songs, is executed best, and marvelously well, by the two men, Mike Nadajewski and of course Brent Carver. The two women have lovely voices (though in some songs I felt like Jewelle Blackman didn’t have quite the right kind of voice – a bit too full) and if the men hadn’t been so amazing I’d probably be shouting their praises, but I sometimes felt like they themselves were singing the songs, rather than a character they created, major exceptions being “You’re Not Alone,” “My Death” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” sung in the original French and interpolated into the musical for this production, a decision I cannot regret since the song is so fantastic but which doesn’t have any other particular warrant. (“Le Moribond” is, similarly, interpolated into Act I; I suppose it’s a Canadian thing, a nod to bilingualism?)

The only other liberty taken with the original show that I noticed was to turn “Marathon” into a kind of theme song for the production, sliced up and sung slowly in bits as transitions between other songs, rather than the opening number. I thought this was an interesting choice – it turns the whole production into the dance marathon in question. But I’d probably have objected more if I liked the song better; “Les Flamandes” is okay, but the translation turns it into something resembling Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a litany of historical cliches. In any event, using “Marathon” this way gives the performers something to do as they transition from one song to another, a song that they can sing to each other as they do the hand-off, which both smoothed those transitions and added another dimension, particularly when the singers changed characters as part of the transition.

If you are a fan of Brel’s music, this is a wonderful opportunity to see it live again. And if you are unfamiliar with Brel’s music, this is a wonderful opportunity to invite it into your life.