It would be sheer madness to anoint one lyric as the best first line of a song ever written, given the billions of tunes floating around out there. But it's hard to beat "My death waits like an old roué/So confident I'll go his way." Those words from "My Death," penned by poet, songwriter, and singer Jacques Brel, are just one example of his mastery of the incisive image, and one reason his music has such a devoted following.
Cleveland has a notable history with this Belgian musician, since Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris played more than 500 performances at Playhouse Square and had a role in preventing those grand theaters from becoming parking garages. Now, Kalliope Stage is presenting The Music of Jacques Brel, a cabaret-style collection of Brel ditties, most translated from the original French by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau.
Brel himself was a composer and lyricist of immense passion, commenting on the vagaries of love, loss, and war with unabashed emotionalism often shaded with irony and veiled resentment. When performing his own work, he employed a broad, energetic style that left nothing to the imagination. Director Paul F. Gurgol attempts to snare that energy in this production, but it doesn't work often enough in a show that frequently feels off-center.
The five-person cast features performers who have garnered rave reviews in previous Kalliope offerings. And at times, their skills shine through, as in a lovely ensemble rendition of "Old Folks" at the close of the first act, and a clearly articulated presentation of "The Desperate Ones," the song that elucidates the core of romantic agony: "They watch their dreams go down . . . they walk without a sound/The desperate ones."
The women generally fare better in this endeavor, as Joan Ellison uses her delicate features and steady vocal presence to do justice to the wry "Timid Frieda" and the aforementioned "My Death." Jodi Brinkman delivers "Ne Me Quitte Pas" in French and with tender feeling, happily avoiding Rod McKuen's brutally bland English translation ("If You Go Away"). But despite a fine voice, Adina Bloom never connects with the audience, stiffly performing the awesome "Marieke" as if she were singing behind a plaster replica of herself.
On the male side, the imposing William Marshall's deep and booming voice is not well matched with Brel's melodies. Lacking a broader range of vocal coloration, Marshall ends up speak-singing many of his lyrics and papering over the musical gaps with volume and a take-no-prisoners delivery.
But the most egregious missteps are made by Chaz Statham, who takes Brel's hyperemotional material and turns it into burlesque. He mugs his way through the light tune "Madeline" as well as more serious fare such as "Next," the desperate anthem of a new recruit in line at a "mobile army whorehouse." By using shtick instead of embodying the material and finding its deeper meanings, Statham cadges some easy laughs but misses bone-deep truths.
It's always a delight to experience the Brel magic, but this Kalliope approach feels far too thin and off-kilter.