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L to R: Robin Guy, Rachel Eugster, Adrian Zeyl, Richard Sliff, Scott Richardson. Photo by Andrew Alexander.

Theatre review: Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

By Barbara Popel on November 4, 2016

“I’m really enjoying this!” That’s what the woman sitting in the next row said at intermission. Me too. Seeing this musical revue at The Gladstone on opening night made me want to dig out my 1974 LP of the original Off-Broadway production. What wonderful lyrics! What great music! I could see why David Bowie included the cast recording in a list of 25 of his favourite albums, Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie.

His accompaniment of Brel’s songs is masterful; Richardson is one of the reasons to see this show.

Upon entering the theatre, the audience is entertained by several jazzy cocktail numbers being played on an upright piano by Rowena Pearl. She’s splendid in a silvery sequinned dress, but her high heels are kicked off under the piano bench. The revue starts when Scott Richardson takes over from Pearl at the piano and plays the overture. His accompaniment of Brel’s songs is masterful; Richardson is one of the reasons to see this show. Then the lights go down and…

Rachel Eugster begins to sing “Marathon” (the English translation of Jacques Brel’s biting “Les flamandes”). She’s joined by Richard Cliff (dapperly dressed as a cafe waiter), with backup vocals from Robin Guy and Adrian Zeyl.

…although Cliff was frequently “on book” (that is, he used notes to remind himself of the lyrics he was singing), he had such good rapport with the audience that no one seemed to mind.

On opening night, Eugster, Cliff and Guy occasionally had trouble with enunciation and projection, but this wasn’t too much of a distraction. And Brel’s music if fiendishly difficult to sing. Zeyl, on the other hand, was uniformly excellent as a singer. He even looked a bit like the young Jacques Brel.

Both Cliff and Zeyl had great stage presence. In fact, although Cliff was frequently “on book” (that is, he used notes to remind himself of the lyrics he was singing), he had such good rapport with the audience that no one seemed to mind. His performance of the witty ditty “Matilda,” the silly “The Funeral Tango,” and the very dark Kurt Weill-ish “Next” got some of the strongest audience reactions of the evening. He and Zeyl had a great time with “The Girls and the Dogs and The Middle Class,” and so did the audience. I hope we’ll see Cliff and Zeyl in future productions.

Curiously, although she has the most academic and professional experience as a musician, Eugster’s singing disappointed me. This was particularly so with her delivery of my favourite Brel song, “Sons of…” It’s a song which has always brought a lump to my throat. Except for this time. The lyrics matter in Brel’s songs, but I couldn’t detect any feeling when Eugster was singing. This was in sharp contrast to the next song in the revue – “Amsterdam” – which Zeyl sang with great passion and bitterness. After intermission, Eugster redeemed herself with another of Brel’s most famous works, “Marieke,” but again I wasn’t convinced that she had considered what the lyrics meant.

Guy had fewer chances to spread her wings than the other three singers, but she shone in the touching ballad “Old Folks” and as the lead singer in one of Brel’s most famous songs, “Carousel.”

This production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is a wonderful opportunity to hear the English versions of a bevy of classic French chansons – some sweet, some tart, some salty, some bitter. It’s a musical treasure trove.


Jacques Brel… is at The Gladstone Theatre (910 Gladstone Ave) until November 12. The performance starts at 7:30 pm, has one intermission, and ends at approximately 9:15pm. Tickets start at $22 available online at www.thegladstone.ca and in person at the box office.