Chicago Theater Review: JACQUES BREL’S LONESOME LOSERS OF THE NIGHT (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 19, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre really loves the sad songs of Jacques Brel. First came A Jacques Brel Revue: Songs of War and Love in 2005. Three years later they created Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Lovers of the Night, now revived by artistic director Fred Anzevino. Delivered by four ardently depressed performers, it’s an 80-minute catalogue of musical consolations from the late Belgian songwriter/singer. But don’t expect any of his peppier anthems like “Marathon” that sparked the popular Jacques Brel Is Alive and Living in Paris amidst this serial heartbreak. Here the best known musical escalator is “The Song of Jackie,” belted out by Randolph Johnson’s bartender with all the gusto of bad memories refusing to be denied.

In this new work Anzevino pointedly compares Brel’s barflies to very similar denizens in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, “pipe dreamers” waiting for some big break. Employing sharply tart translations by Arnold Johnston of 20 songs, dynamically accompanied by music director Jeremy Ramey, Lonesome Lovers lives down to its name. It’s 1959 and we’re in set designer Adam Veness’s drably dramatic waterfront bar in Amsterdam. In this dingy dive, four survivors—two sailors, a woman and a bartender—wail anthems of departure and betrayal, boozy tributes to Brel’s total grasp of dead ends.

Sung by strangers in the night, the opener “Amsterdam” sets the tone of hungry misery, occasionally mellowed by the oddly jaunty waltz “Beer.” What follows is an inebriating inventory of unreconciled romance (the title song), empty sex (“The Gas”), recalled regrets (“Rosa”), and souvenirs (“The Flat Land,” Brel’s conflicted remembrance of his native Flanders). We witness confessions of thwarted hope (“My Childhood”) or passive-aggressive disdain (“The Vixens,” sung by the men). The bittersweet number “Alone” charts the dark victory of knowing you can sink no more.

Jill Sesso’s lonely lady delivers the title song, a sardonic salute worthy of Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks. She joins with bartender Johnson to consider the unrhetorical question “What Have We Made, My Friends.” The sailors, David Moreland and Neil Stratman, double their despair in the fierce duet “Who’s Next?” and the oddly lilting waltz tune “Jef.” Having seen it all, Johnson distills his toxic take on humanity in the anti-social lament “Those People.” Occasionally a song can lift its captive into active longing as in Sesso and Stratman’s achingly imploring “Don’t Leave Me” and more hopeful “Litany for a Return.” Here only the occasional accidental harmony suggests how close these people might have come.

Anzevino’s quartet amply honor Brel’s brave distress, reversed romances, and open-ended alienation. The one drawback is the show’s overall mood of contagious melancholy. There’s a lack of variety in the material that forces this foursome to act as much as sing out their very specific sorrows. But they do it with disarming honesty—and you’re bound to find your own losses among Brel’s deep sympathy for life’s underdogs.

photos by Adam Veness

Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
Thurs at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 7
ends on August 6, 2017
for tickets, call 800.595.4849 or visit Theo Ubique

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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