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Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Bloomington

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Interpreting Brel
The play "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" brought English translations of Brel's songs to American stages more than 40-years ago. Bloomington Civic Theatre's production runs through Nov. 20 at the Schneider Theater in Bloomington.
Photo courtesy of Bloomington Civic Theatre

Does the song "Ne Me Quitte Pas" ring a bell? How about "Carousel?" If you're not familiar with the music of Belgian singer Jacques Brel, the Bloomington Civic Theatre would like to change that. 

It's reviving a play about the charismatic, 1950s' era performer entitled "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." Chris Roberts of Minnesota Public Radio's Artsunit has more.

There's no shortage of Jacque Brel admirers in the songwriting world. He's been covered by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins and David Bowie. 

You may remember that 1974 Terry Jacks hit "Seasons in the Sun." Brel wrote that, too. 

Still, the singer is a relative unknown in the U.S. This is despite the play "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." The production, first performed more than 40 years ago, brought English translations of his songs to the American stage. 

Bloomington Civic Theatre Music Director Anita Ruth says when he sang, Brel became possessed by the music.

"His performances were so intense and so sincere," she said. "Wow, I mean you just couldn't take your eyes off him."

Director Jon Cranney was turned on to Brel in the late 60s through the play. He couldn't get over the sheer power of the songs, as well as their topical and philosophical range. Back then, the obvious comparison was to Bob Dylan.

"Which is only valid in the sense that he was in charge of creating his own music, that he accompanied himself, and that he had great poetic vision," he said.

Cranney has kind of become the Twin Cities interpreter of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." He directed it in the early 2000s' for Park Square Theater. The play originally featured four singers on a dark stage sifting through the Brel catalogue. Cranney made them into actual friends of Brel's, and placed them in a former Parisian nightclub. 

"And then I just looked at the songs and said, 'This is a story of life,' " he said. "Here's a song about childhood. Here's a song about innocent young love. Here's a song about mature love. Here's a song about growing old. Here's a song about death. So I just put them in that order."

The cast
The cast of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." (Top row from left) Adam Qualls, Amanda Schnabel, and Alex Knezevich. Rose Le Tran is sitting in front.
Photo courtesy of Bloomington Civic Theatre

"In terms of Brel making statements about what the process of life is, one of the more interesting songs is simply called 'Alone,'" Cranny said.

"It deals with all the stages of life that we go through and yet how we remain individual, and alone," he said."

None of the singers in the Bloomington production had heard of Brel before they auditioned. Now they feel like they've discovered a musical giant. Amanda Schnabel has been able to channel what some consider a masculine, muscular performer because to her, the songs transcend gender.

"What he brought to his music and wrote into his music is such a universal human experience," she said. "That's what I'm finding in the songs and in the pieces is the humanity." 

And, for performer Alex Knezevich, psychological and emotional depth. Knezevich said Brel's work, as it appears in the show, touches areas of the human heart and pysche other productions don't quite reach.

"Musical theater can sometimes be all jazz hands and kick lines and sparkles," he said. "Brel is something different."

Jacque Brel was 49 when he died in 1979 from lung cancer. But people continue to rediscover his music because as director Jon Cranney puts it, he had a heck of a lot to say.