The songs of the Belgian cabaret composer Jacques Brel “maintain their power, their ability to shock, amuse, penetrate, wound and arouse,” read the liner notes for the original cast recording of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” back in 1968. “They happen.”
They’re still happening, in the best sense of the word, at the Gloucester Stage Company’s latest revival of a subscribers’ favorite, which kicks off the theater’s 35th anniversary season.
If you think you’ve never heard of Brel, ask yourself if you’re familiar with the maudlin pop classics “If You Go Away” or “Seasons in the Sun,” both of which were based on his French-language chansons. David Bowie, an ardent admirer, covered Brel’s “Amsterdam,” and Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Collins all recorded several Brel songs.
The spare revue in Gloucester leaves the emotional power to the songs, which remain — more than a half-century after their conception — very much up to the task. The cast of four — Shana Dirik, Jennifer Ellis, Doug Jabara, and Daniel Robert Sullivan (from the “Jersey Boys” national touring company) — share the colorfully faded floorboards with a few props. Before they take the stage, a single carousel horse keeps watch over the bare space; during one number, a trio of upside-down umbrellas, red, white, and blue, trundle by on a pulley; for “My Death,” Ellis sits barefoot on the stage wrapped in a sheet.
(In the sole sop to the digital age, Sullivan took the stage bearing a laptop for the peppy Sixties pop song “Bachelor’s Dance,” tapping the keys in rhythm to punctuate his daydream about “the girl I will marry” — looking for her, presumably, on Match.com.)
Brel famously refused to perform in the United States, save for several renowned Carnegie Hall appearances, in protest of the country’s involvement in Vietnam, and he quit the concert stage for good in 1967. The original “Jacques Brel” show debuted off-Broadway in January 1968. Brel died a decade later, at age 49.
His upbeat songs — the carnival-esque, almost purposefully annoying opener “Marathon,” the ensemble number “Brussels” — have a “let’s-put-on-a-show” air about them that belies Brel’s life-and-death matters of the heart: failed affairs, grim encounters with whores, old age. “We never learn,” sang Jabara on the torchy “Fanette,” sitting hard on the first syllable of “never,” “until it’s . . . too late.”
Jabara closed the first act with an intense reading of “Amsterdam,” a song about the desperate fury of debauchery. You could see the spittle flying.
“I don’t think it’s meant to be enjoyed in the same way as an American musical,” observed one patron during the intermission. “It’s supposed to challenge you.”
That it is. Sullivan’s version of “The Bulls,” a bitter satire of war, ended with a potent cry reminding the audience of the current era, adding to the song’s litany of horrors: “Iwo Jima . . . Hiroshima . . . Baghdad!”
Ellis’s “Not Alone” opened like a nightmare as she clutched a doll, with the superbly understated four-piece band — David McGrory on electric piano, Steve Lacey on hollow-body guitar, Kate Foss on electric and upright bass, and Don Holm on percussion — faintly suggesting the hair-raising sound of a singing saw.
Each singer took a bravura turn or three. Dirik in particular earned hearty cheers for her moving, slow-burn take on “Marieke,” one of Brel’s trademark songs of lost love.
The closing statement, “If We Only Have Love,” would sound like a relic of the Age of Aquarius if the sentiment weren’t so . . . worth repeating. Despite Brel’s fixation on pairs of lovers, here he’s talking about the bigger stage: human compassion. The song is a march, like the march through time, which still seems exactly right.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.