Brel in the Berkshires, created by and starring Amanda McBroom and George Ball.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
George Ball and Amanda McBroom; photo provided
"If we only have love....(fill in the blanks, people)"
No, that’s not quite a quote but it is a descriptive sense of the cabaret evening that Barrington Stage Company is presenting upstairs at Spice Dragon through this weekend. Two wonderful people who have had a long-term connection with Belgian songwriter/singer Jacques Brel - principally through the off-Broadway hit musical "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" - have brought an evening of his work to Pittsfield and it is an evening worth attending, even if you’ve never heard Brel before.
Hearing his work when the show came to California totally altered the course of Amanda McBroom’s career and her life. She fell in love with the music, the words and the man on stage singing them. Nearly half a century later he is still singing those songs and she is at his side as his collaborator and his wife. But it’s better to hear them tell the story, each in a very particular style.
If you don’t know Brel’s songs here is a quick precis: he can take you, in one number, from the sweet to the sarcastic, from the sentimental to the caustic, from a childhood memory to a cataclysmic event. He does this with insouciant melodies that threaten to be forgotten but never are lost. In "Mathilde," for example, Ball exults over the return of his lost love, his ardent wife who can, it turns out, set his teeth on edge and ruin his sleep. In the precious, reminiscent ballad, "I Loved" McBroom paints a romantic picture of a relationship that should have gone all the way and, even though it did, left less an impression of the man involved than you might expect.
The two artists trade songs and emotions with the speed of light and when she sings Brel’s most famous tune "Ne Me Quitte Pas" she sings it in French rather than risk the loss of meaning and tragedy, a true tragedy indeed sustained in the American hit song edition by California’s boy/man poet Rod McKuen.
I worked on the original New York company for three and a half years and remember George Ball when he first joined the company and stepped onto the Village Gate stage. What he has lost in vocal quality is compensated for with verve and understanding and the gutsiness that has always been prominent in his performance of this material. His "Amsterdam" is still strong and powerful, his "Funeral Tango" still a delicious collection of vocal and physical imagery.
His wife performed the show with him in Europe and though I never saw her play it on stage, her recordings have always been a delight and here and now she can put over these songs as well as anyone ever has. She is riveting singing "Carousels" and emotionally a sensation in "Ay, Marieke." Her tone has sustained much better than Ball’s but together, when they duet, they are harmonically a picture of love.
Even with an intermission this show is too short. I can think of five or six songs that could easily be included, but the thing about Brel is this: you always want more. As presented by the Duo of Amanda McBroom and George Ball, with the facile and fascinating accompaniment by Michele Brourman the evening is not even half the length I had hoped for and yet it left me curiously satisfied. . .though wanting more. And in a cabaret who could ask for more than that. Certainly not "The Early-Morning Hangers-On."
This show plays only three more performances through September 23 at the second floor club-room at Spice Dragon on North Street in Pittsfield, MA (Someone please petition Julianne Boyd for an extension!). For information and tickets check on line at www.barringtonstageco.org or call 413-236-8888.