Review: “Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night”

L-R: David Moreland, Jill Sesso, , Randy Johnson, Neil Stratman

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Theo Ubique, No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
When: through Aug. 6
Tickets: $29-$34
Phone: 800-595-4849

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I missed the premiere of Theo Ubique’s “Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night” in 2008, so I was excited to see the revival of artistic director Fred Anzevino and translator Arnold Johnston’s musical revue devoted to the renowned Belgian songwriter and singer who died much too young in 1978. Although the 80-minute show has its moments, and a few of the songs are performed quite well, it’s not nearly as good as it could be for several reasons.

To begin with, creating a story frame for songs that don’t necessarily go together is problematic. Anzevino and Johnston have chosen to set the revue in a shabby waterfront bar in the port of Amsterdam in 1959, or so the press release tells us, though on stage there’s no definitive indication of the year. The focus is on two soldiers, Man 1 (David Moreland) and Man 2 (Neil Stratman), who apparently are on a short shore leave, and are joined by a Woman (Jill Sesso), who sometimes is and sometimes isn’t a prostitute but always appears in a black satin slip (too short for 1959) and bare feet. The fourth character is the Bartender (Randolph Johnson).

The format results in several drinking songs—arguably one too many—being packed into the first quarter of the evening, which has a total of twenty numbers, and the characters either downing shots or acting drunk the rest of the time. There’s also a bit of rivalry between the men for the Woman, though she seems to belong to Man 2, and they spend enough time engaging in sexual foreplay that it gets a little boring.

While Brel fans who know his songs in French or Flemish will be impressed by the accuracy of Johnston’s original translations, some may be put off by the differences between his work and more familiar versions, such as those in the well-known revue “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” For example, “The Song of Jacky,” delivered with reasonable aplomb by Johnson, sounds odd with a refrain that’s quite different from “cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way.” On the other hand, there’s no question that “Don’t Leave Me” is a better translation of “Ne me quitte pas” than “If You Go Away,” and Sesso and Stratman sing one of Brel’s most famous songs with admirable passion and commitment.

With a few exceptions, I found the musical arrangements by Joshua Stephen Kartes lacking in nuance and subtlety. It doesn’t help that musical director/pianist Jeremy Ramey pounds out virtually every song with a heavy hand, or that every one includes a big crescendo in the middle or at the end or both. A couple simply cried out for an additional musical instrument, such as an accordion for the opening “Amsterdam,” one of my favorites, here sung by the company with a lot of volume but without the requisite bitter bite.

On opening night, the pianist and performers seemed to be out of sync at times, and the singers’ voices didn’t really warm up until roughly the second half. They also didn’t come across as seasoned or world-weary enough to convey the emotional depth of some of the songs. About a third resonated with me, among them Man 1’s “My Childhood,” the Woman’s “I Don’t Know Why,” and the Company’s “The Flat Land.”

Considering the limitations of the No Exit space, Adam Veness’ scenic design and James Kolditz’s lighting are adequate, and David Heimann’s choreography is predictably minimal. The program doesn’t list a costume designer, which may be why Sesso is stuck in that slip the whole time. I’m not sure what era or which branch of the service the soldiers’ uniforms are from, or if they are authentic at all.

Theo Ubique’s “Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night” left me wanting more—but that’s not entirely a compliment. Recordings of him were playing before the show started, and what I really wanted was to listen to more of them.