An evening with the music of Jacques Brel (1929-1978) is hard to resist for theater and cabaret lovers. More than any other composer, his songs reach more deeply into my psyche, and my soul, than any others out there. So an evening with the Belgian composer’s music is always special. Between the songs, the performers shared tidbits about Brel’s life with the audience, and the source of his songs. He hated war and loved women, whether naughty and nice.
When Amanda McBroom and husband George Ball belt out the timeless songs of Brel you can’t help but wonder why it’s been so long since you last heard them. Best of all, their performance wasn’t a by-the-book revue like the original off-Broadway revue that introduced him to most of us in America. If you have heard his music it is likely due to Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris which requires four singers and a small combo to be done right, but in many ways, this third appearance by Amanda McBroom in the Berkshires was better than that.
A songwriter herself, McBroom, along with her music director Michele Brourman, knows how to parse a lyric, and to make it come to life as if being heard for the first time. Some of her choices were tender and could break your heart (especially if you speak French). ”Don’t leave me”, (Ne me quitte pas) was given an authentic airing, not at all like the Americanized “If You Go Away” by Rod McKuen which was sung by Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand. “Don’t Leave Me” is both a lament and an anthem to undying love that has racked up at least 400 different recorded versions in 22 different languages. It is arguably Brel’s most popular song.
The show stopper last night was “Carousel”, (La valse à mille temps) sung by McBroom with splendid lighting effects by Brad Berridge. If crowd reactions are a good measure of how a song is going, watching the capacity audience upstairs at Spice Dragon on North Street bobbing their heads up and down with the tempo of the music was perfect evidence that they were – mentally at least – on the Carousel with McBride, and enjoying the ride.
For George Ball, there were two exquisite songs that brought me close to tears, “Old Folks” (Les vieux) and “Amsterdam.” The French chanson, as you probably know, is a story in song, and the lyrics are far from ordinary near-rhymes and prattle. They are, in the unique style of the French, heartbreakers.Brel also wrote songs that could be considered anthems, as with the closing number, “If We Only Have Love” (Quand on n’a que l’amour). McBroom and Ball doubled on that one, as they did for several songs throughout the evening. When they sang together – he with a gruffish, timeworn voice, she with finesse and panache – it was the sort of unusual salt and pepper pairing that truly interesting couples give you.
Of course, for the encore, the pair returned for one more song, “The Rose,” McBroom’s own signature song which Bette Midler sang in the film of the same name, and which has been covered by many other recording artists. McBroom is also known for her collaborations as lyricist with songwriter Michele Brourman, including some of the songs in the The Land Before Time film series, Balto II: Wolf Quest, and the musical Dangerous Beauty based on the film of the same name.
It was great to have Amanda McBroom and friends back in the Berkshires again, and a total delight that she brought Jacques Brel along with her, plus her husband and musical collaborator. With two performances remaining and only a few tickets left, you might see if you can nail down your own ducats to see this sparkling show. Saturday night’s performance is a benefit for the Barrington Stage Playwright’s Mentoring Project, and that’s well worth supporting.
It’s a rare treat to have Amanda McBroom back in the Berkshires, but when the leaves begin to turn, she seems unable to resist its charms.
Barrington Stage Company presents Brel in the Berkshires starring Amanda McBroom, George Ball with Michele Bourman,music director. At Spice Dragon on North Street, Pittsfield. Tickets: BarringtonStageCo.org. Box Office 413-236-8888.