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THEATER REVIEW Jacques Brel's Lonesome Losers of the Night
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-06-28

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Playwright: music and lyrics by Jacques Brel, translated by Arnold Johnson. At: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: $29-$34. Runs through: Aug. 6

Playgoers attending Theo Ubique's musical anthology drawn from the canon of Jacques Brel are advised to set aside their memories of the 2008 premiere production, as well as those of the seriously flawed 1970-vintage "Alive and Well" cabaret revue.

It might be a good idea, too, to forget the Olympia Theatre concert recording by the composer himself, airings of which on WFMT's "Midnight Special" during the 1960s and '70s transcended language barriers to conjure visions of smoky Left Bank boites ( although Brel was, in fact, Belgian ) for a generation of Anglophonic-exclusive Midwestern romantics. This 2017 revival deserves to be viewed fresh.

The setting is still a waterfront tavern in Amsterdam, its denizens consisting of a proprietor, two sailors—one clad in remnants of military uniform—and a heartbreakingly young prostitute. The stories recounted in song are familiar tales of repressive childhoods in provincial villages, youthful crushes and loss of innocence, faithless lovers and sex as unsatisfying in absence as in consummation, wistful dreams and unpromising futures. One of the men comforts his morose companion. The girl whom they both love contemplates escape—with anybody. The bartender recalls his glory days, now soured by age and wisdom. ( Did you know that Brel was a pop star early in his career? ) Ultimately, they conclude, everyone is alone.

Director Fred Anzevino and musical director/one-man orchestra Jeremy Ramey's score doesn't welcome us with a robust anthem in praise of beer only to have us cry into them, however. The selections spanning a swift 80 minutes—rendered in Arnold Johnston's superlative translations—reflect tempos ranging from the swaggering tango-rhythms of the sardonic "Jacky" to the bass-heavy boogie-woogie backbeat of "What Have We Done," while the delivery evokes prototypes as varied as Maurice Chevalier and Kurt Weill. The likewise diverse vocal soundscape encompasses Randolph Johnson's rich baritone profundo and Jill Sesso's delicate treble, with David Moreland's and Neil Stratman's distinctive tenors anchoring the harmonies.

Brel fans may protest exclusions evidenced in the agenda, but this is not a "greatest hits" revue. Instead, its purpose is, through the poetry of a charismatic composer who continues to influence artists to this day, to paint a portrait of disaffected youths crippled by ennui, but refusing to abandon their search for contentment in an indifferent universe. Who doesn't recall having experienced such a moment?


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