Jacques Brel's unconventional view of life

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

The impassioned, polished production of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" at MetroStage is a testament to the longevity of the imaginative music and intelligent, thoughtful lyrics of Belgian singer-songwriter Brel. With its references to everything from love to war to class differences, the original show was a smash hit when it debuted Off-Broadway in 1968 and ran for more than four years.

The MetroStage production doesn't deviate from the original revue structure, where four vocalists (Natascia Diaz, Sam Ludwig, Bobby Smith and Bayla Whitten) perform 28 songs, some as solos, some as duets or trios. There is no story line holding the songs together. They stand alone as brilliant tone poems, illustrating the extraordinary breadth of Brel's interest in life, its potential for joy as well as for grief and for a host of subtle, muted emotions.

The success of this show is of course due to the fact that the cast members have sensational voices and are excellent actors. Diaz is a knockout, no matter what she sings. She can be very funny, as in "The Bulls," where she makes fun of bored bulls, and "Carmen." But she is particularly good in the quieter, moving songs, like "Marieke" and the passionate "Ne Me Quitte Pas."

Bobby Smith also excels at humor, as in "The Girls and the Dogs." But his bright, clear tenor is especially effective when he sings about lost love in "Fanette." Ludwig has great range, both as singer and actor, but no number reveals that range more than the raw "Next." Whitten can play cute when need be ("Timid Frieda") and serious when need be ("You're Not Alone").

Onstage
'Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris'
Where: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria
When: Through Oct. 21
Info: $25 to $55; 703-548-9044; metrostage.org

Director Serge Seiden has paced the show carefully, allowing the great diversity of Brel's lyrics and music to develop at a natural pace, gaining momentum, then slowing, becoming mellow. Choreographer Matthew Gardiner at times virtually stops the motion onstage for some solo pieces. At other times, he designs delightful patterns of interaction, for instance in the intricate "Brussels."

What "Jacques Brel" provides as theater is far more than a collection of songs. It illuminates Brel's ability to represent the world in an unconventional way. It also reveals Brel's absolutely stunning knack for taking life as he found it, attractive or ugly, and turning it into something unforgettable, the way a good photographer takes life and turns it into art through the way he or she uses light and frames the shot. Brel knew how to frame the musical shot.

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