Twenty-five years ago, downtown Cleveland was an arid desert populated by homeless vagabonds and a few hearty suburbanites in polyester leisure suits, who cruised the orange shag carpet at the Elegant Hog and discoed to the latest Village People record at the Rusty Scupper. Across the street stood four closed, neglected once-elegant movie palaces, waiting for the wrecking ball.
Then came Joe Garry Jr.'s production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, the first hopeful bud of the eventual Playhouse Square renaissance. Garry's production was graced with lavishly king-sized performances by David Frazier and company. A bit of European schmaltz and Cleveland ham mixed with a dash of Parisian sophistication made the show a Cleveland cult classic.
Now, thanks to Ensemble Theatre, you can go back to Marseilles, sort of. In their own sweet revival of this Cleveland antique, Ensemble proves that, just as it was in the '70s, this is still ideal entertainment for those whose idea of paradise is buttering their Stouffer's croissants while listening to Jack Jones singing rueful ballads like "The Impossible Dream." Since this revue first opened in New York many years ago, the title no longer applies, since Jacques Brel is no longer alive and well, but is buried in Tahiti, where he spent his last years.
The flu epidemic that has been terrorizing the country left the four-person cast a member short for opening weekend, yet Jonathan Ball, Christine Hirsh, and R. Scott Posey (fresh from his triumph in the title role of Beck Center's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) carried on with pluck and panache.
On a stage the size of a Volkswagen are draped the colors of the French flag, a wrought-iron table and chairs, a street lamp, and a park bench. All the performers affect their own French look, by way of J.C. Penney.
Ball, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Kris Kristofferson, goes for the macho leather vest and turtleneck Left Bank look. He has been doing Jacques Brel on and off for decades, and he slips easily into dockworker cynicism, singing of "authentic queers and phony virgins" and innocence lost in a whorehouse. When he holds an arm out to the audience, pleading for understanding, or strikes tough-dock-worker poses, he manages to radiate the appropriate raffishness and sing the Anglicized, rueful Brel regret in a healthy tenor.
Hirsh, the Sophie Tucker-sized, faded-blond streetwalker, vegetable seller, and pathos spinner, has a voice suggesting frayed silk that can wring tears out of songs of old age and blighted love.
Posey, done up Billy Bigelow-style in a black turtleneck and red kerchief, has the most forceful vocal cords this side of Lakewood. And even though he can't help looking like anyone's cousin who sells real estate, he manages to put vocal bite into his numbers, whether singing of the old days in Brussels, of waiting for a tramp amie to return, or of compatriots lost in a senseless war. He has a dangerous vibrato, which, if not kept under control, could land him in eternal tours of The Fantasticks.
Pat Mazzarino and Lucia Colombi direct warmly and literally, making the show accessible to a wide variety of people, even those whose kinship to France may be only a childhood viewing of Gigi.
We can be grateful to music director Mark Baker that there are no synthesizers to make the accompaniment sound like a mechanical toy. There is only the sound of Baker's wistful piano, Bruce Amsel's bass, and Bill Hart's tasteful percussion.
Just as in French-dubbed John Wayne movies, there is a tendency toward falsification, due to translation--a fuzziness in the intention occurs from one culture to another. There is some loss of authenticity, yet the spirit endures, and one would have to go far to find a similar banquet of Gallic charm all in one evening sans import taxes.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, through March 15 at Ensemble Theatre, 3130 Mayfield Road, 216-321-2930.