Is It a Brel? Is it a Play? No, It’s Super Minstrel!

The passenger freighter anchored in the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia.

Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s 1968 Off-Broadway hit Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is now alive and kicking in L.A. at the Odyssey Theatre. The current show consists of four gifted singers/ dancers/actors -Miyuki Miyagi, Susan Kohler, Marc Francoeur and Michael Yapujian - performing on a bare set about two dozen numbers originally created by Belgian singer/songwriter par excellence, Jacques Brel. The quartet is backed by musicians playing bass, percussion, keyboard and guitar.


Brel composed the music and wrote the lyrics for his chansons, most of which he also performed live in cafes, cabarets, concert halls, on albums, films and TV, although other top talents also covered his oeuvre - Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, Nina Simone, David Bowie, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Leonard Cohen and Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. Chanson is a lyric driven type of French song that has its origins in the Middle Ages, although the 1929 Brussels-born Brel gave this musical genre his own unique twist.


The Belgian troubadour’s songs took shape, according to the excellent press notes, as “ballads, tangos, boleros, rock and classic songs.” The chansons’ sport rather ingenious lyrics - for example, in the opening ditty, “Marathon,” “confetti” rhymes with the names of the doomed Italian anarchists “Sacco and Vanzetti.” (The songs are mostly sung in English, with excellent translations by Blau and Shuman, who have also supplied some extra material used in the production now on the boards at the Odyssey. For instance, as talented as Brel was, he could not predict the future and “Marathon” includes references to events Brel could not have known about.)


The songs are mostly not merely sung but acted out, bringing to life their often bittersweet themes as if they are vignettes in a play: Obsession, romance, lost love, getting old, the end of the life cycle and more. Singing solo, Kohler movingly renders “My Death,” and with Miyagi performs that ode to aging, “Old Folks.”


A son of the bourgeoisie, Brel became a bohemian and many of his chansons boast robust social commentary and consciousness. “Sons Of”, sung by Kohler, has a strong antiwar vibe, as does “Next,” an improbable ballad about a brothel during wartime, which, as delivered by a riveting Francoeur, gives renewed meaning to the most brilliant slogan of all time: “Make love, not war.” (George Carlin quipped that if he had invented that phrase, having done his job for the human race, he would have gone to the beach for the rest of his life.)


Although his father was actually a factory owner, Brel wrote one of the 20th century’s best songs about class struggle, “Middle Class.” With great verve Francouer and Yapujian hoof and croon their way through this biting number about capitalists. With acid dipped lyrics, “Middle Class” is as caustic and flippant as “The Internationaleis a rousingly lyrical hymn to the workers of the world. To paraphrase Jimi Hendrix: “Move over Eugène Pottier and let Jacquie take over.”


One could say that Brel’s chansons are the musical equivalent to the “Poetic Realism” of French cinema around the 1930s, with films by Marcel Carné, Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, etc. Alive and Well is performed in two acts with one intermission, and the company executes several songs together, including the grand finale, “If We Only Have Love,” which is arguably Brel’s anthem and credo.


It’s hard to pinpoint this live show’s form. It is not a traditional narrative drama or comedy with a character arc, plot points and the like - although a more discerning eye (and ear) than mine might find the songs, which sometimes seamlessly segue into each other, to be thematically linked. Nor is this exactly a concert, a revue or a cabaret arc. Perhaps this is one of the outstanding things about Alive and Well - like Brel, who became an international star despite his horsey face, it defies description. Is it a Brel? Is it a Play? No, It’s Super Minstrel!


In any case, I can tell you what this show definitely is: Terrific! In the immortal words of that famous critic Tony the Tiger, “It’s Grrrrreat!” The performances are all nearly as flawless as they are poignant, and director Dan Fishbach admirably helms his toe-tapping, mellifluous ensemble. Like each Brel tune, one thesp is better than the next, and young Michael Yapujian, who just graduated from USC and mere days later found himself co-starring in this, his first professional gig, clearly has a bright future in front of the footlights and beneath the klieg lights.


Now, to shamelessly plagiarize the Swiss-French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, here are two or three things I know about the titular Belgian balladeer: Jacques Brel is DEFINITELY NOT!!! Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Jacques Brel is dead as a doornail and buried in Autona, Hiva Oa. Ten years after Blau and Shuman’s show opened, Brel died in this Marquesan Island, located about 700 miles north of Tahiti. I know, because I have visited his grave six or seven times in French Polynesia. Perched up above the village of Atuona, Brel is in the same cemetery as the Post-Impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, who died in Hiva Oa 75 years before Brel died there in 1978.


Since 1992, I have enjoyed the fantastic luck of sailing to the Marquesas aboard the incredible cargo-cruiser the Aranui ( seven times - these Oceanic odysseys have been the most fantastic sojourns of my life. Yet one of the saddest things I ever encountered was at Brel’s grave, which is adorned with a plaque of the Belgian and his longtime lover, Maddly Bamy of Guadaloupe (who, happily, is still alive and well and, methinks, actually living in Paris).


Anyway, somebody - I suppose a French tourist? - placed a framed, sort of illuminated manuscript with fancy shmancy handmade writing in ink on the grave of poor Brel, who never lived to see fifty (he must have had premonitions about dying early in order to write songs such as “Funeral Tango.”) Translated from French into English the missive’s words read: “And if a warbler should alight here, sing for him - for he can sing no more.” These unforgettable, unexpected musings worthy of a Brel song just broke me up.


Well, dry up those eyeballs, dear reader, because it’s time for the Fun Facts of this appropriately bittersweet review:


Despite his fame and fortune, the ailing Brel chose to live far from the madding crowd in the Marquesas, the remotest archipelago from continents on Earth. However, Brel - who had actually become a movie star - missed the cinema. So in the 1970s, before videotapes, DVDs, Internet, etc., how was Brel able to keep track of his beloved films? Can you guess, dear reader? The answer is one of the funniest things I ever heard: Jacques built his own theater, so distributors would ship him movies to screen at his cinema, so far from civilization he could indulge his movie mania! (I don’t think Brel even charged the Polynesians admission.)


The huge 35 mm projectors are exhibited at a museum devoted to Brel in Atuona (near a Gauguin museum), along with Brel record album covers, posters, photos and the like. The best exhibit in this small museum is Jojo - Brel’s restored Beechcraft Twin Bonanza, which he flew around the Marquesas - hangs from the rafters. (Perhaps Jacques named it after his beloved manager, Georges Pasquier, nicknamed “Jojo”? Whk nows?) The Marquesans reportedly liked Brel, who would fly them from their remote isles to hospitals in emergencies.


The last time I went to the Odyssey I saw London-born Canadian actor Max Lloyd-Jones co-starring there in Kiss - he’s now portraying Blue Eyes in War for the Planet of the Apes, opening on Bastille Day. Be that as it may, Alive and Well was well worth a return odyssey to the esteemed Sepulveda Blvd. playhouse. Bravo, Brel!


Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris plays Thursdays (July 13 and 27 only), Fridays (dark Aug. 11) and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. (dark July 23), through Aug. 27 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For more info: (310)477-2055, ext. 2;


For Aranui info call: (800)972-7268. Bon voyage!

Painter Paul Gauguin, who died in 1903, is buried in the same cemetery Jacques Brel is, at Atuona, Hiva, Oa, Marquesas.