Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night
At the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—Theo Ubique is bringing back its hit production of “Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night,” which is good news both for original patrons of he 2008 premiere and newcomers who haven’t get been exposed to Brel’s special brand of music.
The show is a kind of sequel to the immensely popular “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and living in Paris,” which spread his name throughout the world and ran for four years off Broadway from 1968 to 1972, along with a successful run in Chicago. Brel, who died in 1978 at the age of 49, was a Belgian composer and singer and a master of world weary and slightly cynical songs associated with French cabaret music. Much of his vast output sounds like an extended soundtrack for those French noir motion pictures of the 1930’s and 1940’s, oozing disillusionment and barely contained despair.
Like the first Brel revue, the ensemble consists of four performers, in this case one woman and three men. The scene is a dingy bar on the Amsterdam waterfront in 1959 (a splendidly evocative set by Adam Veness and lighting by James Kolditz). There is no dialogue, just one number smoothly sliding into the next. Instead of relying on a linear plot, the show establishes a sustained mood embellished by David Heimann’s bits of choreography.
Photo by Adam Veness
The show consists of 20 songs, most of them about love and most of them sung by characters who have continuously filled wine glasses and whisky tumblers at their fingertips. Gathering in the bar are two nameless sailors about to ship out, the bartender, and a lady of the evening. They deliver the songs in various combinations from solo to ensemble, with regret, nostalgia, and forlorn hope carrying the evening
There are a few numbers taken from “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”—notably “Amsterdam,” “The Song of Jackie,” and “Who’s Next?” but most of the numbers should be unfamiliar, and that’s one of the positives about the revue. Rarely do we enjoy the opportunity of hearing so many superb new songs in one sitting. Brel was a decent composer, but his strength resides in his lyrics, translated with much power and expression by Arnold Johnston, a Michigan-based wordsmith whose sensibilities are perfectly attuned to Brel’s brand of que sera sera fatalism.
Brel’s love songs can be tender, angry, passionate, joyous, or unhappy. They are sung by characters who have loved and lost too often. They live with the emotional bruises of failed affairs and yearn for something better in the future, but not too hopefully. After all, consider their records in the past. Yet the revue never slips into self pity or gets mired in gloom. Brel’s lyrics crackle, sometimes telling mini stories of past experiences. They give qualified singers one chance after another to wear their emotions on their sleeve with no holding back.
The intimacy of the No Exit Café is perfect for this kind of show. A black and white photo of the dreary Amsterdam waterfront sets the tone for the evening. The continuous musical accompaniment is provided just off stage by the heroic pianist/musical director Jeremy Ramey. He seems to be wearing his heart on his sleeve like the soulful characters just a few feet away from him.
The four performers are all fine singers but it’s their chemistry cements the show’s success. They have obviously studied the lyrics closely, mining them for the rich veins of emotion that drive the evening. Their characters drink together, reminisce together, and explore their frustrations and sorrows together. There are no weaknesses in the cast but the first among equals is Randolph Johnson as the bartender, some years older than his three customers. and a man who has seen much and now can sit back and watch the passing parade. He also has a stirring voice that allows the Brel lyrics to cry out for our attention.
Photo by Adam Veness
David Moreland, Neil Stratman, and Jill Sesso play the threesome who gathers together to share feelings before the sailors depart, maybe never to return. Sesso is the most wounded of the fours, a hooker trying to brazen out her griefs in a sexy dress and bare feet. Stratman is the more laid back and disconsolate of the young men, Moreland the more outgoing. I wouldn’t want to exchange lives with any of them, but they make marvelous company for the revue’s uninterrupted 85 minutes.
Serving as our brilliant guide for the night is director Fred Anzevino, who conceived the show, along with Arnold Johnson, and seems to crawl into Brel’s musical skin to explore such a variety of feelings with such sensitivity and dramatic truth. Anzevino shrewdly starts his production slowly and builds as the music gets stronger, each performer rising to the ascending intensity.
I would love to see this company present the first Jacques Brel revue, which I think has better songs overall. But as a sampler of the great man’s music, it’s totally recommended. I hope Johnson finds more work on the Chicagoland musical theater scene. He has the voice and physical presence to ornament any musical stage in the area. Happily he and Anzevino found each other. Add Sratman, Sesso, Moreland, and Ramey and the results are as satisfactory as any show of its size in town.
“Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night” runs through August 6 at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $29 and $34 and $39. For more information, call 800 595 4849 or visit www.theoubique.org.
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