Chicago Theatre Review
Bitterness, Loneliness and Longing
Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night – Theo Ubique
Nine years ago artistic director Fred Anzevino and translator Arnold Johnston collaborated to create a new revue featuring a handful of songs by the prolific Belgian composer, Jacques Brel. As it was in 2008, this collection of songs remains a dazzling little jewel of a show that features 20 of Brel’s hundreds of haunting melodies.
Jacques Brel was born in 1929 and left his mark on the world as a songwriter, singer, actor and director before his passing in 1978. While Brel primarily wrote his poetic songs in French, and occasionally in Dutch, his music has since been translated into English, German and as many as 22 other languages. The composer’s ballads have been sung by such luminaries as Rod McKuen, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Ray Charles and David Bowie, among many other artists. In 1968 the composer’s name became better known stateside when a popular revue entitled “Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” opened Off-Broadway. The popular, long-running show featured 25 of his songs and was performed, as in Theo Ubique’s revue, by four singers. The revue, which became an international hit, was eventually filmed and attracted a whole new audience.
This original, thought-provoking new cabaret-style musical is created from the massive canon of
material composed by Brel and is sensitively translated into English and thoughtfully arranged into a unified work by university professor, author, playwright and actor Arnold Johnston. Each song can certainly stand alone, but when they’re performed side by side they seem to blend into a kind of small-scale pop opera.
Set in a run-down Dutch waterfront tavern, beautifully imagined by scenic designer Adam Veness, the personalities of and relationships between a Bartender, a Woman and two military Men emerge through the lyrics and melodies. As the evening of drunken revelry carries on into the night, the personalities of each character peels away revealing more. Employing this dramatic framework, Anzevino, Johnston and musical director Jeremy Ramey (who also brilliantly accompanies with his rich piano arrangements) have skillfully fashioned the songs into a series of musical soliloquies and dialogues. Taken as a whole, this revue is filled with bitterness, loneliness, longing and sometimes a degree of humor.
Each of Anzevino’s four talented performers bring something special to a show brimming with musical and dramatic artistry. These actor/singers are musical experts sporting spot-on timing, subtle dramatic nuance and precise diction. The delicate harmonies demonstrated in “The Vixens,” the joy felt in “What Have We Made, My Friends,” the powerful emotional connection found in “Don’t Leave Me” and the power of the ensemble in “Amsterdam” are just a few of the special moments in this piece.
Randolph Johnson is magnificent as the Bartender, his beautiful voice caressing his pair of tour-de-force numbers, “The Song of Jacky” and the bitter, “Those People.” As the Woman, Jill Sesso smolders and sizzles, occasionally revealing her vulnerable side. She’s especially lovely in her plaintive soliloquy, “I Don’t Know Why?” Neil Stratman is commanding as Man 2, his strong baritone voice standing out in every number, particularly in his duets with the Woman, “You” and “Don’t Leave Me.” He equally impresses in his duet “Jef,” with charismatic Chicago newcomer David Moreland, as Man 1. Moreland blends beautifully with Stratman in haunting songs, like “My Childhood” and the biting “Who’s Next?”
Eloquently staged with sincerity and spirit, simply choreographed and lit with an almost film noir moodiness this honestly-acted and emotionally touching musical feast is everything one could desire on a hot summer evening. Add to this a selection of beverages and optional dinner and dessert, all served by the hardworking cast, and you have a full evening’s entertainment. From Jeremy Ramey’s swelling piano overture to the show’s jazzy title song that opens and closes the show, this revue is bound to inspire new fans of both Jacques Brel’s music and the consistently unrivaled appeal of this wonderful theater company.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 15-August 6 by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 800-595-4849 or by going to www.theo-u.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com