Review: RIAN KEATING SINGS JACQUES BREL is a Rich Dessert at Don’t Tell Mama
Rian Keating Remembers the World of Jacques Brel.
by Ricky Pope Oct. 27, 2022
In 1968, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris opened Off-Broadway. The revue of songs by the Belgian singer surprised everyone and ran for four years. It makes sense in hindsight. Brel, whose career spanned from the early ’50s to the late ’70s wrote very theatrical chansons about the world he observed rebuilding itself in the devastating aftermath of World War II. His songs are penetrating character studies that reflect a world-weary cynicism born out of seeing the world of your youth destroyed with no promise of something better rising from the ashes. It is no surprise that America, in the worst days of the Vietnam War was intrigued by Brel’s glimpse into the pre-war world. Many of Brel’s songs have a Proustian quality of remembering the past through a burnished, golden lens. And much like Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past, Brel’s plays-in-song feel like sitting down to a rich dessert, all brandy, and creme with a splash of old-world charm. Something to be savored.
The problem with this fine collection of songs is that Keating and director Tanya Moberly have not really given them a context for the audience to grab onto. In fact, Keating says remarkably little throughout his show, letting the songs speak for him. The only words in the evening are those of Brel himself. It seems a shame to restrict so fine a storyteller from doing the thing he does so well. I wanted to learn why these songs are important to Rian Keating. I wanted to know why he found them important to the world of 2022. Despite his fine performance, these questions are not answered, truly these questions are never posed. What we are left with is 14 rich desserts.
But scrumptious desserts they are. Keating thoroughly inhabits tunes like “Brussels.” “Madeleine,” “Marieke,” “Fanette,” “Girl in an Armchair,” and “The Song for Old Lovers.” He was especially good at playing both sides of a deteriorating affair in a medley of “If You Go Away” and “No Love, You’re Not Alone.” He illuminates the bleakness of “Old Folks” and “My Death.” I was especially fond of “Days of the Waltz” a Ravel-like construction about the days of one’s life whirling by at an ever-faster velocity. And he saved the best for last, singing Brel’s most notable composition, “If We Only Have Love.” He punctuated the evening with poems by Brel himself and Rod McKuen.
In full disclosure, I am not the biggest fan of Jacques Brel. His anti-optimist view of the world is antithetical to the joy of the chanson, in my opinion. But I am a huge fan of Rian Keating. I think his acting of Brel’s songs is exemplary. He is also greatly aided by the wonderful arrangements and virtuoso playing of his musical director, Jeff Cubeta. I found this show beautifully acted and well sung, but structurally problematic. It is worth seeing for Mr. Keating’s passionate performance and for Cubeta’s wonderful arrangements. But I was left wanting a little less Jacques Brel and a whole lot more Rian Keating.
RIAN KEATING SINGS Jacques Brel is onstage again Thursday, November 3 at 7 pm. For tickets and information, go to donttellmamanyc.com. For more about Rian Keating, follow him @rian.keating.3 on Instagram.