Category: Category 1

Rian Keating Sings Jacques Brel with Passion and from the Heart

November 6, 2022 NiteLife Exchange

Photo by Natasha Castillo

By Marilyn Lester***To truly savor Rian Keating‘s show, Rian Keating Sings Jaques Brel, which recently concluded a run at Don’t Tell Mama, there are certain facts to be known about both men. Brel, born in Belgium in 1929, was an singer-songwriter, as well as an actor, who’s modern chanson are poetic, witty and intelligent works covering the scope of human existence. When Brel learned he had terminal lung cancer (he died at age 49), he recorded “L’Enfance” (Childhood), the proceeds to be donated to La Fondation Perce Neige, to help disabled children. 

Keating also has a dual career—as a teacher and performer. His teaching is focused on foreign/immigrant students, some of them undocumented. Early on in this career he established The Golden Door Scholarship Fund. The proceeds of each of his performances go to this fund so that under-supported students such as his would have a chance at a college education. To date, he’s raised over $75,000 toward this end.

Like Brel, Keating is attuned to the human condition. As a performer he is, in narrative and lyric, a master storyteller—full stop. What should be considered and thrown aside is that as a singer, he’s not always on pitch, owing to seriously impaired hearing. What comes to mind is the great Mabel Mercer, whose vocal chords betrayed her, but her presentations were brilliantly delivered in parlando, talk-singing—and the musical world stopped to pay attention to her keen ability to tell the story. Should Keating desire to perform more of his work in the Mercer style, there’s no doubt he’d be a master of it.

In Sings Jacques Brel, Keating has returned to this early-career show, moved deeply by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war it spawned. The decision was not only motivated by the outrage shared by much of the world, but by a personal affront: he has Ukranian students. In a statement about the show, he states, “I cannot help but think of how their lives have been upended and the lives of those they left behind have been irrevocably altered.”

And so, Sings Jaques Brel is a carefully curated song cycle of nearly 20 Brel works. Brel’s chanson, mostly originally in French, have been translated into at least 95 languages. Early on in his career, his genius was noted and his songs covered by a veritable bevy of international performers. English translations in Keating’s show are mostly derived from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a much-revived 1968 musical revue, with English lyrics by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. Many of the selections are ones familiar to a general audience, such as Rod McKuen’s 1960 “If You Go Away,” effectively paired with “No Love You’re Not Alone.”

Song cycles are by their nature, intense and in ways, unrelenting, since there’s no narrative. It takes a certain skill to present one, to keep an audience engaged. The very likeable Keating has worked into his a rhythm that rides like waves, from the opener, a pointed and dramatic “Sons of/The Dove” (lyric by Alasdair Clayre) to the closing number, an echo of the first set of songs, “If We Only Have Love.” With laid-back passion Keating moves the songs forward, sometimes allowing that passion to break free into a wild ride of Brel. Such was the case with “Marieke.” Keating recited the intro to the song before entering a dramatic space that included English combined with Dutch, as Brel intended.

Another recitation came with “Amsterdam,” one of Brel’s most famous pieces, with it’s rapid-fire crescendo detailing the exploits of sailors on shore leave, with the repeated phrase, “In the port of Amsterdam.” Following this snippet of narrative came the dirge-like medley of “Old Folks/My Death.” Brighter tunes included the comic-tragic “Madeleine” (lyric by Gérard Jouannest and Jean Corti) and the melodic, uptempo “Days of the Waltz” (lyric by Will Holt).

At the conclusion of Sings Jacques Brel, Keating spoke an epilogue that could have been a prologue. But this choice was appropriately placed as a wrap-up. Sings Jacques Brel is a song cycle in which attention must be paid to its deep feeling and creation of intense mood. In diving straight into this “spectrum of human experience,” Keating succeeded, as intended, to deliver a show more relevant now than it ever has been.

Music director Jeff Cubeta played a measured and skillful accompaniment, giving Keating the precise support required by each song in the cycle. Astute direction was by Tanya Moberly.

Photos by Natasha Castillo