Following closely on the aftermath of the sonic wrath of Evita (cross-reference below), the arrival of the Jacques Brel Songbook on the Tom Patterson cabaret-runway was as welcome as a light sherbet between courses of a heavy-rock meal.
To be sure, the dreaded microphones were in evidence again (Peter McBoyle, sound designer) but, like the music itself, were utilized much more tenderly even though the venue, the voices and the musicians were quite capable of combining their acoustical smarts and impressive talents without need of a single amp of reinforcement.
Director Stafford Arima (adroitly assisted by Todd L. Underwood with the staging) wisely let the just over two-dozen songs speak for themselves. Why compete unnecessarily with art of the highest order? Magically banishing the traditional curtain out of view to reveal a detail-rich montage of Brel and his times was most effective (more or less the vertical equivalent of the court-to-forest transition which was another visual treat in the season opener, As You Like It—cross-reference below). Umbrellas with under-lights, pop-out top hats (and colourful bonnet for the youngest male, of course), hand-held percussion, matador gear and stand-up (happily mute!) mics added wee bits of visual relief but always played second fiddle to the score.
Rick Fox’s superbly crafted arrangements contributed a great deal to the success of the revue. He had the luxury of knowing for whom these notes were written and the café quartet more than fulfilled the promise of the charts. Students and admirers of skilful modulation (used for melodic and dramatic effect) will be served up with a master’s thesis on the fine art that—far too often—is confined to half-step banality.
Laura Burton guided her colleagues while simultaneously coaxing cascades of timely chords, varied melodies, florid accompaniments and clean, crisp punctuation from the veteran upright piano (making it sound better than it should). The glimmering hue of the perpendicular celeste, her ability to know when to lead or go with the flow kept the music moving forward effortlessly, adding considerably to the pace of the show.
Doing double duty on violin and accordion (How could these songs ever ring true without the latter?), Anna Atkinson demonstrated finesse, skill and flexibility for both instruments. Her onstage “ham” cadenza (wandering minstrels added yet another element of interest without interfering with the music) could well have superseded the vocalist’s disdain of being upstaged (the audience howled with delight) and the numerous technical challenges in Fox’s busy passagework were tossed into the ring with panache.
Also accepting two assignments was guitarist/cellist George Meanwell, who moved back and forth with the greatest of ease. Absolutely unforgettable was “Ne me quitte pas.” The solo accompaniment was pure gold—especially the octave shifts where the poignant line moved every heart in the room. Standing within a few feet of the singer, the electronic pickup was eschewed for sound production of the most natural order. The effect was only slightly marred by the tinge of reverb that the voice couldn’t shake off. (Seems a well-trod theme here, methinks!)
Providing a solid rhythmic and tonal foundation was double bassist Luc Michaud. Like a good drummer (whose kit is better felt than heard), Michaud pushed, pulled and cajoled as required, adding much to the overall whole.
It would be hard to imagine a better combination of scoring and performance. What a pleasure for all concerned to be able to take the high level of music-making for granted,thus being able to truly focus on the other components of the show.
In terms of vocal production, Mike Nadajewski led the pack. Whether in his solos (notably “Fanette” and “Next”; hilariously “The Bulls”), duet (“Middle Class”) or ensembles, his dulcet tones, surety of pitch and emotional insights were a constant pleasure. Being a master of comedic timing was just another bonus.
Nathalie Nadon has considerable range, used to excellent effect in “Timid Frieda” and “Old Folks.” A touch more support in the middle register and at phrase endings could soon move her contributions from good to great.
Brent Carver personified Jacques Brel’s intensity (“Marieke”), mischievousness (“Bachelor’s Dance”) and passion (“Amsterdam”) but lacked a consistently pure upper-range to give the musical result as much quality and impact as the lyrics.
Also at home on the violin (double threats seem to be the norm in the entire Stratford company), Jewelle Blackman deservedly brought the house down in “Carousel”—this lines-aplenty, word-de-force featured a Rossini ending and concept likely born of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” However, in the ballads (e.g., “You’re Not Alone”) the over-active vibrato and lateness to the centre of climactic pitches left the ear wishing for a different approach.
With so much excellent music filling every minute of this production, there shouldn’t be an empty seat from now until closing. JWR