By Patrick O’Brien
Revues may not be plotted like musicals, but the best ones order their songbooks in such a way that the chain of emotions becomes the plot. Tonal variety, then, becomes key.
And when crafting a revue based on Jacques Brel, for whom connoisseurs would have a million words in a million languages to describe the breadth of his reach and the depth of his emotions, variety seems easily in reach.
And when that Jacques Brel revue is conceived and directed by Chicago revue-meister Fred Anzevino, armed with English translations (by Arnold Johnston) that bear the Brel estate seal of accuracy and approval, variety is practically a given.
AND when that Jacques Brel revue comes back in a revival, previously garlanded with high praise and Jeff nods, it would seem variety was achieved, a great new revue was born, and is thus born again.
Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night by Theo Ubique is solidly sung, arranged, designed and directed, and is an impeccable mood piece. But that mood — gloom — is decidedly singular.
To be fair, one doesn’t expect everything to come up sunshine and daffodils when working with a slyly subversive songsmith like Jacques Brel, nor when the revue explicitly evokes Eugene O’Neill’s brinier plays. (Adam Veness’s wonderfully busted-up Amsterdam hole-in-the-wall sure looks briny.)
Maybe “lonesome losers” was a conceptual misstep. Sure, it’s the name of a Brel song, and he certainly wrote many songs from a so-called loser’s perspective. And one could easily rattle off a list of plays, musicals, and revues about so-called losers that have done really well. (One just did really well for itself at the recent non-Equity Jeffs.) But this band of losers — Neil Stratman and David Moreland as drunken washed-up soldiers on shore leave, and Jill Sesso as a weary prostitute who can’t get any leave — is missing something, some je ne sais quoi, some revelation of self-worth, or at the very least self-awareness.
But here, the song choices don’t lead to self-awareness, much less revelation. “Don’t Leave Me,” Johnston’s translation of the old Brel chestnut “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” perhaps suffers the most for this. It’s as aching and revelatory a song as any — it’s made precisely for the 11 o’clock spot — and Sesso sells it like it’s never been sold before. But, in fact, we have been sold her sad story. Hers and everyone else’s. For ninety minutes.
It can make for compassion fatigue, in other words.
There are choice moments. Randolph Johnson, in his Theo debut, has an ideally rich instrument for the space, and for all the stirring gravitas of “Those People,” he is most importantly blessed with levity with “Jackie,” the paean to naive layabout ambition, spiked as it is with regret.
Or, if anything, this is a show that’s worth sneaking a few peeks at Jeremy Ramey, Theo’s magic music man. Some of the arrangements (by Joshua Stephen Kartes) have in their consciously elaborate construction just the sort of piquant humor that has helped define Brel, and watching Ramey’s fingers fly is the closest the evening feels the joy of craftsmanship imbued in a Theo Ubique revue.
Lonesome Losers may not be lost in translation, and it may not be a full-blown musical, but at some point, the plot got lost at sea. It all depends on whether folks want to go all out on their lonesome to find it.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents “Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night” through August 6 at the No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.