Jaques Brel is alive and well in The Englert

BY ELLEN HARRIS | JULY 23, 2009 7:15 AM

The low buzz of laughter and conversation among the six cast members of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris floated around Room 172 of the Theatre Building during last week’s rehearsal as guest director Bill Theisen looked on.

“Three of the cast I had worked with before, and three I had not,” he said. “It’s been a lot of experimentation, a lot of bringing out what’s good in them.”

Theisen came to Iowa City for his third time as a guest director to assist with the UI Martha-Ellen Tye Opera Theatre presentation of Jacques Brel, a musical revue of Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel’s work from 1956 to 1968. The production will run at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. July 26 at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St.

Brel had success in Paris’ cabarets and music halls in the 1950s, where he sang about love and life in troubadour-like fashion. After recording several songs and working closely with musician friends, his work took a darker turn, focusing on the hardships of life and the inevitability of death.

However, he maintained his initial sense of humor in much of his music.

Though succumbing to lung cancer at the relatively young age of 49 in 1978, Brel’s prolific European career made his work a prime candidate for the musical revue that the UI is now staging.

“Actually, when I was hired, we weren’t sure what the show was going to be,” Theisen said. “We decided this would be a great piece to expose the cast to this French Cabaret Song, which is a different style of music for them.”

Theisen, who has worked as the artistic director of Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theatre for the past five years, describes the French ‘Cabaret Song’ in his director’s notes as “Brel [and others] literally painting with words and music the existential world [he] saw.”

The first Off-Broadway staging of Jacques Brel occurred in Brel’s lifetime. Débuting in 1968 in Greenwich Village, the dramatic collection of songs featuring a four-person cast ran for more than four years, and a film version was produced in 1975 by the American Film Theatre.

“It just felt like these were the right six people for the show, so we decided to do it with six,” Thiesen said, “And they’re a mix — there are a couple of undergraduate students.”

One of those students is UI junior Chaz’men Williams-Ali, a vocal-performance major and classical tenor.

“I know my voice doesn’t sound like a tenor when I talk,” he said and laughed in a low, deep baritone.

Hailing from St. Louis, his musical background ranges from gospel, R&B, and “old soul music” to the opera, musical theater, and classical work he discovered at his performing-arts high school. But the Brel genre challenged him in ways he didn’t anticipate.

“Jacques Brel is unlike any other show I’ve done,” he said. “There’s a lot of Sprechstimme — speak-singing. It’s got pitched talking, and there’s this cabaret stuff that I’m not very familiar with. And that was a challenge in itself.”

And if the vocalizations weren’t difficult enough, the characters definitely gave him pause for thought.

“There’s this song — ‘Mathilde’ — where I’m literally just this train wreck of a guy [because of] this girl who just drives me up a wall who’s back in town,” Williams-Ali said. “There’s this little bit of fatal attraction there, because you can’t live with her — you’d kill yourself — and you can’t live without her when you see her — because you’ll kill yourself. Or she’ll kill you.”

He pauses, shaking his head.

“The sky is the limit with this show. Don’t expect anything to be off-limits.”

Another UI junior, Katilin Galetti, found Brel’s work to be far more freeing than some traditional composers.

“One of the things with classical music is that it comes together easily, because it’s all written down,” the husky-voiced Galetti said. “If you’re singing Mozart, he writes what he wants you to do — he writes exactly how he sees it. But with things like this, Brel writes more for the text. He writes for what you’re saying.”

The cast is accompanied by a band consisting of piano, electric and acoustic guitar, bass, and various percussion instruments, led by recent UI graduate Ben Bentler.

“Hold up,” he called to the musicians during a recent rehearsal. “Let’s go back a bit. Got to get these transitions.”

Working with the band has been a new experience for Galetti, who was more accustomed to the typical orchestra that usually accompanies UI opera pieces.

“You have to listen to what [the band is] doing to hear how it applies to you and how it really changes the music,” she said. “It’s really fun, being able to hear something that’s a little bit less structured. And all the percussion, with all the thick sounds versus all the thin sounds, it has a totally different feel.”

While the cast members may laugh during their downtime, it’s strictly business when the stage manager calls for a blackout.

“Working with these six or seven people, they’ve just been killer folks to work with,” Williams-Ali said, glancing fondly in the direction of the director and cast members.

One such member, Vivien Shotwell, is saying a bittersweet goodbye with this show. The recent graduate received an M.F.A. in vocal performance, and she will begin a seven-month tenure with the Calgary Opera in Alberta, Canada, starting in the fall.

“This is my last performance in Iowa City,” she said. “I’m sad, but it’s really wonderful to do it on such a show.”

The soft-spoken Shotwell cites Thiesen as the main reason for the success of this unusual musical.

“Bill is just amazing,” she said. “He’s so quick and fast with the staging and this wonderful, lively, vibrant choreography that we’re doing. He’s really good about giving critical feedback, but in a warm, nurturing sort of way. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to work with him.”

Thiesen can’t wait for Iowa City audiences to experience Brel’s insightful music.

“This stuff now is 50 years old,” he said. “But the ideas are really are so relevant today, it’s kind of startling. They’re timeless. There’s something really wonderful in that.”

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