Daily Pilot

On Theater: 'Alive and Well' at Costa Mesa Playhouse

By Tom Titus

9:07 AM PDT, June 4, 2013

Love and loss. Desire and despair. Infatuation and irony. All these are ingredients in the Costa Mesa Playhouse's latest production, "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris."

Chances are you haven't heard of Jacques Brel, unless you've caught this show in two other Costa Mesa venues — Orange Coast College and the Backstage Theatre — many eons ago. Chances also are you're not familiar with the show's songs — except for one, which is the only number sung in French.

Brel, as the program explains, was not a Frenchman but a Belgian cabaret singer-songwriter whose tunes spoke of war, love, loss and desperation. He recorded mainly in French, but attracted a worldwide following in the 1950s and '60s.

There is no story line as such in the production, but director Sarah Wilson has concocted a number of mini-plays featuring her four-person cast in the 22 songs that comprise the show. The limitation is that the only words you'll hear are sung.

The theme of the evening is pretty well represented in the song which both opens and closes the show — "If We Only Have Love." Most of the musical numbers deal with romance in its various forms, usually in terms of disappointment or heartbreak.

Wilson, along with musical director Owen Panno and choreographer Lindsay Kerr, have orchestrated an involving exercise with their cast — Amy Ganser, Delilah Kujala, Robert Parkison and Eric Goldstein.

Kujala kicks things off with a throaty rendition of the aforementioned tune and joins with the others in a closing melody reprise. Hers is the older, more experienced character, lecturing musically on the folly of romance. She scores most mightily on the haunting solo "My Death."

The show's finest performer is Goldstein, whose solo renditions of "Jacky" and "Fanette" are as near to showstoppers as you'll find. He also sings the French lyrics to the tune that we on these shores recognize as "If You Go Away."

Gamin-like Ganser charms with her sweetness and feigned innocence. Her rendition of "Timid Frieda," as a nervous woman clutching her two handbags for dear life, is another highlight.

Parkison is the only cast member who displays difficulty projecting over the five-piece band, although this might be traced to a faulty mic which crackles occasionally. He does excel on the fever-paced "Next" late in the show, as well as in the first-act closer "Amsterdam."

Set designer Amy Ramirez has transformed the stage into what appears to be a cellar café somewhere in the seedier section of Paris. The mood is nicely conveyed by lighting designer Dallas Gaspar, as well as uncredited rear-screen projections featuring a singer warbling in French whom we must assume — correctly — is the actual Brel.

There is a surprisingly sizable portion of heart-tugging emotion in a show that only presents its characters interacting for a few minutes at a time. Director Wilson and her fine quartet deserve high praise for creating and sustaining this mood at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through June 30

Cost: $18 to $20

Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com