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Black Sweaters, Black Humor

Jacques Brel: An Evening of Song Directed by Scott Goldsmith At Leverett House, Nov. 9, 10

By Scott A. Rosenberg

UNDERGRADUATES LOVE to stage musical reviews. They require little scenery, characterization, or preparation. Singers like them because they offer solos enough even for the less-talented voices. Directors like them because they're easily transformed by adding and deleting numbers. Lazy audiences like them because there's no plot to follow, no psychological interplay to understand--only a leisurely ramble down musical garden-paths, on which the weary can close their eyes for intermittent stretches of time without missing much.

That's why so many musical revues inhabit the House dining halls and common rooms every fall and every spring, and that also seems to be the only reason for this production of Brel. A modestly talented group of performers has taken on the challenge of resurrecting Brel's seedy, French-night-club spirit, and both cast and audiences seem mildly intrigued by the subject. But the production has no pretense of saying something new and provocative about Brel, or in fact saying anything about him at all; and the sparse attendance at last Saturday night's performance ought to suggest that there's less than all-consuming interest in another musical revue, another bunch of songs, among student audiences.

Such questions of origin and purpose aside, however, the Leverett crew deserves credit for putting together a show without any embarrassingly bad moments and with some rivetingly good ones as well. A workman-like air prevails in the Leverett Old Library, as though the performers want to tell the audience. "We promised you nothing more than a collection of Jacques Brel songs, and here they are." There's a feebly executed but well-meaning attempt to create coffee-house atmosphere--the audience trades its ticket stubs during intermission for a cup of coffee and a croissant--but the floodlit cavernous Leverett dining hall offers little in the way of bohemian squalor or continental chic.

Nonetheless, the simple genius of Brel's music carries the show. With deftness and economy this balladeer of the down-and-out mixed the tender and the funereal into a weltschmertz as heady as any German musician has ever brewed. These are songs that use familiar sounds--the sagging languor of a torch-song, the steady intensity of an army march--to put the listener off-guard and then knock him flat with cynical or black-humorous lyrics. "Marathon" goes on a careless, accelerating dance through the 20th century, nostalgically stopping at favorite decades, until the abrupt, eschatological ending puts a stop to the singing, the dancing and the music. "Carousel" sets lyrics of childish innocence about carnivals, and ferris wheels, and cotton candy to light-hearted oom-pah-pah music that gradually speeds to a maniacal frenzy, until no singer could possibly keep up.

THE CAST is all competent--you don't cringe at any of the singing, even if you do at some of the French pronunciation in the untranslated opening number--but only one singer stands out. David McIntosh's leering, contorted expressions and jerky, stage presence give no hint of the size, strength and confidence of his baritone voice. His solos, "Mathilde" and "Amsterdam," demand the most stamina and brashness of the Brel songs in this show, and McIntosh has plenty of both. In "Amsterdam," a lurid ballad of drunken sailors, he bellows the lines with as much force and volume as anyone would want in the small confines of the Leverett theater, yet manages to make almost every word intelligible.

The other men, Andy Sellon and Ben Schatz., have less ample vocal talents, but their songs are less demanding; too. If Sellon is a touch precious and self-conscious in "Fanette," a lengthy contemplation on alost love, he provides just the right sneer of disgust for the satire of the solider's lot in "Next."

Among the women, Caroline Rody's sweet secure voice renders the multi-lingual "Marieke" gracefully, if a bit timidly. Susan Pollock's voice sounds very well-trained--in fact, too well-trained. Her careful attention to breathing and assiduously precise placement of each note is distracting. The demure soprano of Carla Seidel finds the right, slightly cloying tone for "Carousel," though by the end she becomes both inaudible and unintelligible as she tries to keep up with the song. But then, that's the point of it all.

The director and performers must have had many more ideas on how to sing the songs than on how to stage them. Although some individual numbers have full vignettes acted out around them, there's no sense that these people have any ideas about their materials except that they're beautiful or passionate songs. Black turtlenecks and black trousers can't single-handedly evoke the contnent, and no matter how well-wrought Brel's songs are, they could use a little interpretation to carry the evening.

A show like this is a painless way for singers to exercise their talents and for students to spend an evening. As long as Brel and its fellow revues can continue to draw audiences, there's no harm in them. But it's hardly unreasonable to demand more--more thought behind the singing, and more ambition in their choice of material.

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