With its disreputable location and junkyard decor, the Zipper proves the dream setting for this timely revival of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” which introduced Yanks to Brel’s emotionally bruising songs of love and loss and postwar Euro angst. While this new edition remains entirely faithful to the spirit of the 1968 cabaret show that ran four years at the Village Gate (the Zipper of its day) before transferring to Broadway, helmer Gordon Greenberg has heightened the cynicism of the Belgian troubadour’s impassioned song narratives, giving a whole new audience a chance to connect with the fierce antiwar poetry of earlier generations.
It does take some time to realize that the profusion of found objects set designer Robert Bissinger has strewn around the Zipper’s narrow stage bear little relationship to the songs. But thanks to the seedy costumes supplied by Mattie Ullrich, we do get the message that each of the four performers in this pointedly well-cast production is playing a distinct character.
Robert Cuccioli (“Jekyll & Hyde”) is the show’s resident cynic and heaviest smoker, the disillusioned guy in the cheap suit who has been around the block so many times even the hookers don’t pay attention anymore. With his powerful voice and barely contained anger at the vicissitudes of life, he’s the one who gets to cry over a lost love (“Fanette”), to remember the broken dreams of a drunken sailor (“Amsterdam”), to thumb his nose at the mourners at his grave (“Funeral Tango”).
Gay Marshall, whose one-woman show “Piaf, La Vie l’Amour,” took her to Paris, is the battered beauty holding up the bar, the one with the been-there-done-that eyes and the Piaf pipes. She’s drowns herself in a song lyric, begging a cruel lover to take her back (“Ne Me Quitte Pas”), keening for the war dead at Flanders Field (“Marieke”) and for all the sons lost in all the wars (“Sons Of”).
Rodney Hicks (“Rent”) is the kid who talks like a smartass and sings too loud. Full of himself, he’s the innocent who acts tough (“The Bulls”), chases whores (“Next”), goes off to war to be a hero (“The Statue”) and comes back dead.
Then there’s Natascia Diaz (“Man of La Mancha”), the waif with the big eyes and the catch in her voice who drags her suitcases from place to place, trying to negotiate the ways of the world without falling into the gutter. She’s the one who feels for us all, the sensitive soul who knows she’ll be hurt (“Timid Frieda”), who sees the existential loneliness in just being alive (“Old Folks”), whose suicidal impulses (“My Death”) are getting harder to resist. She’s also the one who sounds a bit like Elly Stone, which should send a shiver up the spine of anyone who saw the original show.
Brel didn’t write songs, he wrote musical stories for strongly defined characters who speak from bitter experience (“The Desperate Ones”) about the loves they’ve lost (“No Love You’re Not Alone”) and the dreams they still believe in (“If We Only Have Love”) and of their desperate need to keep on going (“Carousel”), even if it’s all a stupid joke.