A Bit of French Culture in Beautiful Downtown Burbank

When the Pasadena Playhouse closed, my wife and I began to think about what would replace that subscription (because, even if they did come back, their handling of patrons was not worthy of our subscription dollar). We began to think about what other theatres had the right mix of ambiance, size, and quality. Very quickly, our thoughts turned to a mid-size professional theatre in Burbank, the Colony Theatre company. We had seen a number of shows there before (and were impressed), so we started watching for a show to “test them out” again. Last night was that show: “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

Jacques Brel is one of the original “jukebox” musicals, dating back to its debut off-Broadway in 1968 (long before “Ain’t Misbehavin’”). We last saw the musical in one of our first seasons at the Pasadena Playhouse, way back in the summer of 1988 (in fact, it may have been our second season there). I have no real memories of it; the show is simply a collection of Jacques Brel songs, assembled and translated by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. The show was revived in 2006; the revival trimmed a number of songs and added some. However, although the songs are beautiful and small stories in themselves, there is no particular book. What makes the show is the staging, the actors, and what the director and actors bring to the songs. This is not a show that can depend on a classic book to save it; it is the skill of the performance and the artistic vision.

In both of these areas, the Colony excelled. As we learned at the talkback, the director, Jon Lawrence Rivera, had a vision after reading the lyrics and listening to the music of placing the show in a memorial setting: the first act is at a funeral; the second act is graveside. Not adding any dialogue or lyrics, and simply drawing on the talents of the actors and creative team, he turned the song cycle into a story of sorts—well, if not a story, then he at least established personas for the actors. His accomplice in all of this was the acting team: Eileen Barnett (who we saw in both Kiss of the Spider Woman and Radio Gals), Zachary Ford (who we saw in Camelot at the Playhouse), Gregory Franklin, and Jennifer Shelton. This team had a remarkable talent of bringing the characters to life—they weren’t just singing the songs, they were living them. It is this combination and synergy that makes this show special. Adding to all of this was Brent Crayon, the Musical Director, who took a score that was received in pieces and assembled something great.

Back to the acting team for a paragraph, because they were so special. Although it is hard to pick a favorite, I just couldn’t take my eyes off of Ms. Shelton, who was just so expressive and playful in her character. She also had a remarkable voice and an obvious sense of humor and physical timing, which came across well in the song “Timid Freida”. Less physical but almost more emotional was Ms. Barnett, especially in songs such as “Marieke” and “Sons Of” (which is actually the song from which “Seasons in the Sun” derives—see, you have heard Brel). Turning to the men, Mr. Ford was another remarkable singer and performer, being especially notable in “Madeleine” and “Next”. Lastly, Mr. Franklin (who represented the older man) was great in numbers such as “Funeral Tango” and “Jackie”. Lastly, I’ll note that even the music director got into the singing act (and did quite a good job of it), joining with the other men in the number “The Middle Class”.

Turning to the technical side, there was good and bad. The scenic design by John H. Binkley was simple but effective: a coffin and chairs in Act I; fewer chairs and a grave site in Act II, surrounded by surrealistic metal trees. The lighting design by Adam Blumenthal was also simple: Colored lights, few spots, and effective color on the cyclorama (with an effective gobo splash). I noticed some moving mirrors, but couldn’t identify how they were being used. The costumes (by Dianne K. Graebner) were non-detractive, which in a show like this is what you want, as there is no particular period. They came across as appropriate mourning wear, with Mr. Ford’s being slightly military (although I was unsure whether the arm rank matched the shoulder rank). The sound design was by Cricket S. Myers who normally does excellent stuff (so I’m sure the actual design was good), but there were some setting and balance, as well as sound cue problems, that were noticable. We asked about this at the talkback, and it appeared to be due to settings not being reestablished during the week. Hopefully, that was just an anamoly for our show. Set dressing was by MacAndME. Crystal M. Munson was the Production Stage Manager. The casting director was Patricia Cullen.

As I noted before, the musical direction was by Brent Crayon, who coordinated the five member band (Brent Crayon, Piano; Cris Mello, Guitars; Jeff Novack, Bass; Oliver Steinberg, Bass; and Emiliano Almeida, Drums). Supplementing them was Zachary Ford on the accordian.

The artistic director of the Colony Theatre is Barbara Beckley, who did something I love to see: got up before the show, welcomed the audience, described the upcoming season, and made the place feel like a family. This is important to me as a patron: it is something the Pasadena Playhouse did under Lars Hansen and Susan Dietz, and something that was lost under Sheldon Epps.

As I noted at the start of this review: We went in trying to decide whether to subscribe, and we made the decision to become Colony Subscribers last night. This gives me the right to promote their upcoming season :-): “Grace & Glorie” by Tom Ziegler, June 9-July 18, 2010; “Free Man of Color” by Charles Smith, August 11-September 12, 2010; “Bell, Book, and Candle” by John Van Druten, October 20-November 21, 2010; “Moonlight and Magnolias” by Ron Hutchinson, February 2-March 6, 2011; and “The All Night Strut!”, conceived by Fran Charnas, March 30-May 1, 2011. You can get information on each of the shows here, or visit here for the PDF brochure. After the increasingly high prices at the Playhouse ($815 for the 7 show season, plus upwards of $5-$8 for parking), I was pleased by the subscription prices. Looking at the middle tier, the total tickets were $300 for 5 Saturday night performances (top tier would be only $50 more). That’s much much more reasonable, plus there is free parking at the theatre.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” continues at the Colony Theatre until May 9, 2010. Tickets are available through the Colony, and are often available via Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

Upcoming Theatre. As for us, what’s upcoming on the theatre calendar? Tonight brings “Damn Yankees” at Van Nuys HS; with the April installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre on Sunday. The following weekend takes me to “12 Angry Men” on April 24 (the rest of the family sees it on May 2). May looks to be equally busy, with “Little Shop of Horrors at Cabrillo Music Theatre (May 1), and “12 Angry Men” for Karen and Erin on May 2 @ 2pm (while I get ready for a Games Night at Temple that I’m running). The weekend of May 8 sees Karen and me at the So Cal Ren Faire on Saturday. The weekend of May 15 sees the CDF Conference for Karen and Erin, followed by The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson at 8pm. The next weekend takes Erin to the Ren Faire, while we see the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre (May 16). The fourth weekend in May brings the Spring Dance Show at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22). The last weekend in May brings the Bat Mitzvah of a family friend, as well as “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (May 30 @ 2pm). June so far is mostly open, although I’m expecting that we’ll see “South Pacific” at the Ahmanson some weekend that month, and potentially the June “Meeting of Minds”. As for July, the month starts with “In The Heights” at the Pantages on July 3. The next weekend I’m holding upon for the first show of the 2010-2011 Colony season, “Grace & Glorie” (likely July 10). That weekend may also bring “It’s Top Secret”, a musical that is part of the Festival of New American Musicals, running Jun 19-July 18 at the NoHo Arts Center (likely July 11). July will also bring ; “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at REP East on July 17 (pending ticketing); a possible July “Meeting of Minds, and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on July 31 24 (likely moved due to a birthday party).

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.