French is a language of the nose, both in the way many of its sounds are produced and also in the very subtlety of its gradations, which seem attuned to the finest of sensory cues. The feeling that French speakers savor life on a different wavelength is just as strong when they're belting or snarling out big, unsubtle songs, as the Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel often did.
The American musical doesn't have these colors on its palette (or in its palate), and for proof we need look no further than the hard-working Off-Broadway revival of "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." This English-language revue by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman premiered Off-Broadway in 1968, long before the current vogue for jukebox musicals. For years it did yeoman's work as an ambassador for Brel's songs, as he'd given up live performing the previous year. But while director Gordon Greenberg has mounted an energetic, mostly fluid new production full of satisfying period touches, it paints Brel's world mostly in primary colors.
It's not as if a smiley face has been plastered over Brel's passionate tunes, but the renditions here are stark enough to make us think of the old comedy and tragedy masks. You may start to think that Brel was manic-depressive: Jaunty rag follows dirge-like lament, dainty waltz follows blistering cri de coeur.
And Greenberg's four-member cast does not shy from the extremes. Looking a bit like David Byrne in a vintage blue suit and thin tie, Robert Cuccioli wrings every last drop out of sweeping weepers such as "Fanette" and "Songs for Old Lovers," and turns the Dostoyevskian fantasia of "Jackie" into a wild, athletic mad scene. Natascia Diaz makes "My Death" a rocking power ballad, and winks knowingly through the saucy "Timid Frieda." But mostly she's on hand to wring heartsick numbers for every tear, as in "Old Folks" and "I Loved."
The other two cast members don't have quite the same range or power: Gay Marshall's scratchy vocal timbre can sound convincingly French, but she blows out too many high notes, and Rodney Hicks, dressed as a Left Bank starving artiste, gets so wound up that he destroys his big climaxes, though he does fine work on the bitter soliloquy, "The Statue."
Once we're acclimated to the show's haphazard layout and oversized emotions, it settles into the rhythm of a souped-up cabaret. A few rousing group songs, with smart choreography by Mark Dendy, pop out nicely: the ironically upbeat, old-timey quartet "Brussels," and the pointed bit of comic effrontery, "The Middle Class," in which Hicks and Cuccioli are joined by the show's versatile, accordion-wielding music director, Eric Svejcar. Svejcar deserves a special nod for marshalling a persuasively French sound, particularly a marimba rumble that evokes Brel's recordings more effectively than the singers do.
The Zipper Theatre makes a suitably funky venue, framing Robert Bissinger's bombed-out, peeling-paint set and lighting by Jeff Croiter that illuminates blank picture frames in various pastels. If only the show were as artfully shaded.