Bienvenue sur le carnaval! Where the broken sands of time and fairy floss floats o’er the fairgrounds of The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. You won’t recognize a single song in this flash of 21 vignettes, at least not by their lyrics, but the iconic melodies of Jacque Brell tinkle blissfully under each song inviting the audience into a cantering calliope of romanticism, cynicism, and jingly jaunts of whimsy. Directed by Timoth David Copney with Musical Direction by Michael Tan, this strange musical revue brings to light the voices of seven powerful area talents on the intimate stage that could be perfect for a show such as this.
On the whole the talent needs to be the focus of the performance as it is exceptional and quite solid. The company’s resident designers— Alan Zemla, Laura Nicholson, and Fuzz Roark— (designing Set, Costumes, and Lighting respectively) create innovative visually pleasing work that speaks to the skills of their trade and the precision of their craft. However, the there are three separate conceptual notions occurring— one for costuming, one for the set, and one for lighting, that fail to gel as one cohesive unit once put together. In an ironic sense this is almost a representation of the musical revue as there is no specific written underlying thread that connects the vignettes— excepting that they are the music of Jacques Brell— and these disjointed design appendages jumble together a bit like a carousel spun off-kilter.
Nicholson’s lovely pastel costumes are most appropriate for the dapper numbers that read a bit like 1940’s park strolls, but they clash against Zemla’s carnaval/state fair motif which is decorated in loud primary colors. All of these colors unfortunately turn shades of green and gray once Roark’s bold emotional lighting hits the stage. While the design concepts individually stand out, they do not work together to help unify the show as a whole. Director Timoth David Copney fails to actualize a singular theme to tie them all together. The carnival set is whimsical, but confusing. The pastel dresses, suspenders and stripes on the gentleman are spiffy but seem out of place for the European Carnaval set. It is the lack of connectivity in the designs that results in a bit of confusion as the show progresses.
The Production Concept, English Lyrics, and additional material was created by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman; essentially drafting a shell of potential and possibilities within the encasement of 21 songs. There is a great deal of potential in Copney’s ideas— the freeze frame notions that occur during some of the songs, as well as some of the clever, albeit cliché, blocking for the larger ensemble numbers— starts the audience off on a journey down a strangely nostalgic lane. Perhaps, much like the ever-spinning carousel, Copney’s scattered ideas and concepts are meant to represent the blurs of colors, sounds, and lights that one experiences when riding such a ride.
Musically the show is difficult, but Musical Director Michael Tan— who also due to circumstance unforeseen now appears as a part of the singing ensemble— masterfully handles the intricate complexities of Brell’s music with panache. With his magical understanding of how to refine those that are not natural born singers and transform them into performing artists who understand rhythm, pitch, and emotional intent behind a song, Tan’s professional prowess radiates through the performance as the show’s greatest strength outside of the performances themselves.
As a performer, his rich and charming voice lends candor of a humorous nature to “Funeral Tango,” where if seated at the right angle you might just get the show of your life as he pumps out the curiously dark but perky tune from his funeral pyre. “Madeline” as Tan’s other featured solo, showcases his ability to stay on top of a song’s tempo and patter through while making amusing character choices that thoroughly suit the lyrics. Tan shares an impressive duet with Darren McGregor entitled “Middle Class” and it may just be the highlight of the male performances. McGregor and Tan vocally saunter through the number as Pierre and Jojo, with Tan taking the upper-range harmonies on the blends for a truly satisfying gay romp through cynicism and wit.
McGregor is somewhat of a dusty vocal gem with a Dean Martin crooner quality about his sound and his overall stage presence. Leader of the trio of vocal dandies, McGregor brings a burbling intensity to “Amsterdam” a solo in the first act which puts his impressive range, expressive face and pure heart up for display. He bursts through the number like a maelstrom cutting across the waves, underscored by foamy flights of fantasy from the off-stage harmonious girls ensemble. “Fanette” allows McGregor to wax nostalgic with poetic instance in his voice a bit like a timeless old so-n-so crooning away to a woman, a memory, and a time gone by.
Connor Moore rounds out the end of the male trio in the show and performs with zest even when his vocals are nervous. Watch closely during “Next” for all of Moore’s lively expressions that impart the terror and discomfort of his experience of his character in this number. “Bulls” is the number where Moore puts his chutzpah where his voice is and brings home a ringer in the category of surefire performance. The powder blue suit aides his character’s confidence tenfold and the rich flamenco undertones of the music bring the whole thing together for a real zinger of a song.
While Mallorie Kristoffersen has only two solos in the show featured late in the second act, they are by far the most memorable and heartfelt. It is difficult to say which is better as that would be like comparing a succulent juicy pear to a fine aged cheese; both titular on the palette but so very different to describe. “Marieke” showcases at first a seemingly timid voice that floats a mellifluous tune lost in the stunning imagery of the song. Her sudden burst into German empowers her sound wholeheartedly and fills out the song with a resounding resplendence that lifts the heart. Every word of the song, despite being mostly in a foreign language, is easily understood because of Kristoffersen’s emotional clarity. “Old Folks” is a delicate tinkling music box where Kristoffersen spins as carefully as the music does around the center of the stage as if she were the tiny dancer from inside it.
Beth Weber leads the dizzying number “Carousel” with the company joining in for one of the truly picturesquely choreographed moments in the show. With Weber inside of her own head as she sings, the slightly disorienting madness of the ever-turning machine engulfs the stage and the ensemble begins to spin around her, up and down, and round and round; a haunting but fascinating moment in the show. Her voice gives humorous clarity to “Timid Frieda” a ballad of lyrical dissonance particularly if one pays close attention to how the words juxtapose with the slow motion action on the stage.
Kerry Brady opens the solo sections of the show after the impressive opening company number “Marathon.” Brady’s deceptively simple sound parlays deep into rich emotional wells of melancholy for “Alone.” Drifting skyward like a bubble blown off on a breeze, Brady eases into “Sons Of” and emotionally reminds of how a single song can have many facets of feeling.
Lauren Schein rounds out the female quartet of this production, her robust flavorful voice the perfect complement to the ensemble during the larger group numbers. Her solo “I Loved” is fully supported both from a technical standpoint and an emotional one. Her vivid descriptions paint pictures as her voice lilts along and she tempers this dulcet tune with sweetness. A sturdy determination rises in her rendition of “You’re Not Alone.” Awake and bright of voice, eyes, and spirit, Schein belts out a full heart’s worth of earnest emotions in this song.
Think of the evening as 21 separate plays that you have the unique experience of viewing one on top of the next. The vocal talent will not disappoint and if you take in each of the design elements separately rather than trying to connect them or observe them at the same time, the remainder of the show will be enjoyable as well.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission
Jacques Brell is Alive and Well and Living in Paris plays through May 24, 2015 at at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 N. Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.