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Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well

Through Sunday, 9 p.m., at Mather House

By Whit Stillman

FOR FIVE years I've been teased by the title Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris as it lurked in the suburbs of the Times theatre page, but it wasn't until recently that I found the enigmatic statement annoying enough to look into. Initiates told me that Jacques Brel is a very successful 42 year old French singer-songwriter and that the mysterious title belongs to a musical revue of 25 Brel songs translated into English. I pictured Brel as a young Chevalier transforming charm into success and moving with case from a Left Bank garrett (like Gene Kelly's in An American in Paris) to a Citroen and townhouse in the snappy 16th Arrondissment. I imagined him a patsy for Dubonnet commercials.

The Jacques Brel playing at Mather House is an altogether headier brew. Instead of light Parisienne melodies Brel's tones are cloudy and foreboding--substantial with the threat of storm. The music has a vaguely northern flavor, almost Germanic as if it had some spiritual connection with the songs Kurt Weill wrote for Brecht. But there is also a carnival air, with melodies spinning faster and faster up and then down.

Director Guy Rochman is the moving force at every level of this production and the whole is a triumph of his perfectionism. Rochman created the Company and is its tycoon; every asset is well capitalized with profit sharing all around. There's the orchestra which was superb. Musical Director T. Edward Johnson has put a sea of music on cue but with a restraint that kept the pit from overwhelming the performers even when the score was at its most turbulent. The four performers (one of whom is Rochman) were not only disciplined but inspired.

The big star is plump and voluptuous Patricia Covich, a freshman from Emerson college who is making her dramatic debut with Brel. She can turn from a light number to give serious pieces like "My Death" or "Sons of ---" more than their native depths. In between she is a bubbly personality who cannot seem to suppress her enjoyment as if it were her first prom, instead of her first job. Rochman's performance was just as powerful if a bit more self-conscious. "Put the best sheets on the bed, Mathilde's come back to me!" he shouts in an exotic number that combined a love song with a fighting frenzy.

CURT RALSTON was both clever and affecting as "The Statue" of a war hero that cynically comments on the inscription at its feet and the cant of passersby. But sometimes Ralston lets his marionette affectations dominate numbers that would be better played naturally. Paula Rose is the "Timid Frieda" and keeps her reserve amidst the general flamboyance: she is a useful touchstone for calm and excels in romantic numbers such as "I Loved."

Set designer Peter Agoos and lighting crew David Chaplin and Marlene Nelson were vital collaborators in the general success. Agoos' three-tiered circular stage gave the performers both space and a versatile set for barrooms and statues. With a thrust stage and cabaret setting the lighting was crucial--and flawless.

If any carping is to be done about this production it should be directed at Eric Blau and Mort Shuman--who translated the songs and are guilty of "additional material"--or perhaps at Brel himself. Some of the songs--notably "Fanette" and the finale "If We Only Have Love"--are trite and slurpy. The cast was good enough to overwhelm Brel's lack of ideas with its own fire but Blau and Shuman's unfortunate use of the English language is sometimes jarring. (Rochman is obliged to shout that he wants to be "cute, cute, cute, in a stupid-ass way").

The enthusiasm of Rochman and comapny extends from the revue to the neighborhood. They have dandied Mather dining hall up with tablecloths and baskets of polished fruit that turn out to be authentic. Tables ring the ciruclar stage and the actors flirt with members of the audience--which could be dangerous if someone beveraged on the complimentary DiSabato Rose gets jealous. But Wednesday night, with tuxedoed patrons filling the tables and Art at the fore it was a sort of provincial triumph for Mather House. It's a long slouch back from Alphaville.

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