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Nontraditional 'Brel' has surprises for the audience

| Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Howard Elson performs a musical number from 'Jaques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,' during rehearsal at the Theatre Factory on April 19, 2013 in Trafford.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Howard Elson performs a musical number from 'Jaques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,' during rehearsal at the Theatre Factory on April 19, 2013 in Trafford.

Four local actors tackle the complex music of an equally complex man in the Theatre Factory's production of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

Howard Elson of Squirrel Hill, Christina McCann of Churchill, Scott Sambuco of Edgewood and Katie Trupiano of Pittsburgh perform the tribute to Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel (1929-78) in a musical revue that director Thom McLaughlin calls “quite different than the typical musical.”

With no structured plot, the revue, set in a French bistro, tells the story of Brel through his melodies.

“ ‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well' was written as an homage to a complicated writer, poet, musician and performer. It captures the essence of a man grappling with politics, world issues, love, hate, addiction, abuse, rejection, sex and sexuality, the church and organized religion, psycho drama, senility and old age and redemption,” McLaughlin says.

Theatergoers may recognize Brel's music from renditions of his work performed by artists such as Judy Collins, Elly Stone and Joni Mitchell during the '60s and '70s. The director says he is confident that “our audiences will leave humming the songs.”

McLaughlin returns to Theatre Factory after a decade and is pleased with the cast that he says has embraced this project with passion and enthusiasm. “We have a true collaboration. We all have respect for the complexity of the poetry, the poetic images and the insights that Brel had that are so timely.”

Elson says Brel's musical style is unique.

“He writes songs about things not too many songs are written about: The march and pace of history, the hypocrisy of love, depression and suicide and more. I think what the audience will appreciate might be a new perspective and way of looking at the events and emotions of life that are not often celebrated so sensitively, in song.”

A pediatric dentist by profession, Elson says he first learned about Brel when he performed in the musical revue more than 30 years ago, in two runs at McKeesport Little Theatre and in country-club cabarets.

“I came to love everything about the songs — the melodies, lyrics, humor, insightfulness about life, the surprises,” he says. “Brel wrote songs that are spectacularly emotional and not just about love, but family, loss, death, politics, all with an intense sensitivity to life and a wicked sense of humor.”

Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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