When Belgian composer Jacques Brel’s songs were translated into English and presented as an off-Broadway musical revue in 1968, it took the world by storm. Audiences were spellbound by Brel’s musings on life and death, love and war, and the original cast — Elly Stone, Mort Shuman, Shawn Elliott and Alice Whitfield — delivered them memorably. It’s become the stuff of legend and a popular revival all over the world ever since.
How sad it was, then, to see DOMA Theatre Co’s ill-conceived production, directed by Hallie Baran, last Friday night at the MET Theater in Hollywood. The simple revue with a cast of four has been bloated to eight performers, and it’s been saddled with a ridiculous backstory about three generations of a family coming to clean out Grandma’s attic, adding unnecessary business to the piece and lessening the impact of some of the songs.
The performers ranged from adequate to fine, with Jon Paul Burkhart probably having the best pipes and the best hold on the material. Kristen Towers-Rowles does a good job with her songs, particularly “Sons of” and “Carousel.” But AnnaLisa Erickson, as the grandmother, is trying too hard to be liked, constantly strutting around the stage with over-the-top theatricality.
Her brassy voice isn’t appropriate for Brel’s material, and it’s a shame she was given two of his most plaintive songs — “My Death” and “Old Folks.” Her performance of “Amsterdam” is better, but it’s written for a male singer.
And the reprise, with a tone-deaf M.A. Gomez appearing as a long-haired rock and roll singer, was a complete misfire. Speaking of gender switches, Josie Yount’s voice is fine, but she sings songs written for a male, and they don’t make any sense performed by a female singer, since they’re written from a man’s point of view, especially “Jacky.”
Mary Mather gets only one number to herself, which is too bad, because she hits “Marieke” out of the park. Keith Barletta does an okay “The Statue,” but much better are the men’s ensembles of “The Bulls” and “The Middle Class.”
In fact, the show would really have benefited from more choral accompaniment. All of the ensembles — “Marathon,” “Bruxelles” “Carousel” and “If We Only Have Love” — are much more satisfying than some of the thinner solos.
On a positive note, the Brel band is excellent, with Leigh Anne Gillespie on keyboard, arranger Yuchiri Asami on guitar, Rob Bowman on bass and Anjilla Piazza on drums. Gillespie in particular did some nice work on some of the quieter, more reflective songs. Angela Todaro’s choreography is also fine in the ensemble numbers.
Technically, the production was a mess on Friday. Granted, it was opening night, but the lighting operator couldn’t follow the singers, often leaving them in darkness, and the audio operator would occasionally forget who was singing and leave his or her microphone off. Worst of all, loud feedback started humming out of the speakers at the beginning of the second act and was never resolved. I felt sorry for the actors — who could surely hear how distorted the sound was — but soldiered on nonetheless.
The scenic design consists of an attic containing the mementos of a lifetime around which the actors wander, occasionally picking up items to examine them more carefully, but these bits of business often distract the viewer’s eye, upstaging the performance of the one who is singing. And the exchanges of dialogue between songs, intended to set up the next number, are merely silly. Worst of all, “The Desperate Ones” has been excised from the show in exchange for a vinyl recording of Brel himself singing “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” which isn’t even allowed to play out in its entirety.
Certainly the technical problems will be worked out in subsequent performances, but unfortunately the absurd backstory and miscasting will remain. Jacques Brel runs at the MET Theatre, 1089 Oxford Avenue, Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. until October 2nd. Tickets can be obtained here or by calling (323) 960-7740.