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Elly Stone, 93, distinctive singer in ‘Jacques Brel’ revue, dies

Elly Stone, who was enjoying a moderately successful career as a singer and actress when she jumped to a new level of fame in 1968 as part of the wildly popular musical revue “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” died June 11 in Cuenca, Ecuador. She was 93.

Her son, Matthew Blau, said the cause was complications of endometrial cancer. Ms. Stone had been living with her son in Cuenca.

Ms. Stone was one of the four original cast members of “Jacques Brel,” a collection of songs by Brel, a Belgian, adapted and translated by Eric Blau, Ms. Stone’s husband, and Mort Shuman, a fellow cast member.

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The show opened at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village on Jan. 22, 1968, and ran for more than four years, then transferred to Broadway for a brief run in September 1972. It was a true ensemble show, but Ms. Stone stood out. She took the lead on many of its most moving songs, including “Sons of …” and “Marieke,” both of which have since been covered by many other singers.

The revue became, and remains, a favorite of theater groups, professional and amateur, in the United States and abroad.

“Not a day has gone by since the show’s inception 47 years ago without the show being played somewhere on the planet,” Ms. Stone said in a 2015 interview with the Andrew Martin Report, a performing arts website.

Ms. Stone, who with the success of “Jacques Brel” became an in-demand concert and cabaret performer, had a distinctive stage presence. Her attention-getting voice came from a diminutive body — words like “pixie,” “gamin,” and “waif” frequently turned up in reviews of her performances. Comparisons to Édith Piaf were common.

“Like the late French singer,” Newsday wrote in 1972, “Miss Stone conveys a throbbing intensity that contrasts vividly with her vulnerable appearance.”

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Early in her career she was known for comic songs. But by the time of “Jacques Brel,” and in her subsequent career, she had become a master of wistful and sorrowful songs, honestly conveyed.

“Miss Stone,” Robert Palmer wrote in The New York Times in 1976, reviewing a performance at the Bottom Line in Manhattan, “is a theatrical singer with a straightforward musicality that transcends artifice.”

Eleanor Stone was born on May 30, 1927, in Brooklyn. Her father, Max, was an entrepreneur, and her mother, Jean (Rosen) Stone, was an accountant. She grew up in Brooklyn.

After an early marriage to Martin Birnbaum ended quickly in divorce, she embarked on a singing career, although it got off to a rocky start — she was booked at a resort hotel in the Catskills and bombed.

“They didn’t even pay me,” she told The Boston Globe in 1970. “The whole affair rankled, and I didn’t sing again for two years.”

But eventually she found some success as a folk singer with a comic side. In October 1957, she played Carnegie Hall as part of an evening billed as a “Folk Jamboree,” sharing the bill with Sonny Terry, Earl Robinson, and others. The next year she was back at Carnegie with the popular musical satirist Tom Lehrer. (A newspaper advertisement for the show read: “Tom Lehrer Strikes Back!! Assisted in mayhem by Elly Stone.”)

She also began turning up in off-Broadway plays and musicals. And she met Eric Blau; according to the Martin Report article, Blau, an aspiring poet, had been hired to write a campaign song for a local candidate, and Ms. Stone was engaged to sing it.

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In 1961 they worked together on a music-and-comedy revue called “O, Oysters!” Blau wrote sketches and lyrics. Ms. Stone was in a cast that included a young actor named Jon Voight, who in one song-and-dance number played President John F. Kennedy opposite Zale Kessler’s Nikita S. Khrushchev.

“O, Oysters!” used some music by Brel, who at the time was largely unknown in the United States, and Ms. Stone took a liking to his songs, incorporating them into her concerts. In 1966 she was part of a trio called One and Two Thirds that played Plaza 9, a cabaret space at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Milton Esterow, reviewing the act in The Times, said, “They bring down the house with two numbers by the Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel — ‘Carousel’ and ‘Marieke.’”

It was a foreshadowing of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well,” which Blau and Shuman had already begun developing. The show was an unusual theater piece, eschewing dialogue and plot and letting the songs — alternately comic, nostalgic, sorrowful, and bitter — carry the audience through an emotional gamut.

Eric Blau, whom Ms. Stone married in 1962, died in 2009. In addition to her son, she is survived by a stepson, John Blau; his two daughters; and a granddaughter.