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Theater review: 'Jacques Brel' 3 stars

The cast of Jacques Brel

The cast of Jacques Brel

'Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris'
3 Stars

Long before the ultra successful “Mamma Mia!” raided the ABBA pop song catalogue and inspired a never-ending wave of so-called “jukebox musicals,” a quartet of singers performed the hits of Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel at the Village Gate in 1968.

“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” played Off-Broadway for over four years. But unlike modern-day jukebox musicals like “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys,” the songs are not constructed in such a way as to tell a flimsy new plot. Each of Brel’s songs – all expressing a moody, cynical and desperate point of view – is allowed to stand alone as an individual story piece. The show’s most well-known ballad is “If We Only Have Love,” which manages to end the show on a somewhat hopeful note.

The show was revived in 2006 at the now defunct Zipper Factory with new orchestrations and several song changes. Most tellingly, “Marathon,” the jarring original opening number, in which various 20th century figures such as “Adolph Hitler and the Ziegfield Follies, Joseph Stalin and a bag full of jollies” are thrown at the audience, was removed.

The Two River Theater Company’s handsome new production uses the 2006 revival’s revisions, but actually go beyond the physical limits of that staging. As directed by Daniel Ostling, numerous props and costumes are used in each song for additional detail and to make each stand on its own as a separate and complete story.

Particularly wonderful were the use of booze, cigarettes and packages of condoms in “Carousel,” the penultimate song in which life seems to be spinning out of control. By the end of the song, the entire curtain and its beams have fallen apart and the theater itself seems to be breaking down.

There is also no sense that the show is still set in the 1960s in this production. “The Bulls,” the opening number of Act Two, ends with the vocalist rattling off names of historic and recent wars. Here, “Saigon” has been replaced with “Baghdad.” But more so, a contemporary rock spirit invades both the orchestrations and the more upbeat, energetic vocal performances.

The cast of four includes Lindsay Mendez, Forrest McClendon, Rona Figueroa and Andy Kelso. McClendon, who appeared earlier this season on Broadway in “The Scottsboro Boys” and just received a Tony nomination for his performance in that musical, appears on the whole far more relaxed. Still, he can reach a climax in a wild number like “Amsterdam.”  Mendez, who was one of Sherie Rene Scott’s backup girls in “Everyday Rapture,” projects a bright presence and vibrant energy that helps her stand out.

If you go: “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” plays at the Two River Theater through June 5. 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ, 732-345-1400.

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