The belle of Brel

A Musical Journey

Music and lyrics by Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, Eric Blau, Charles Aznavour and others
Directed by Bob Ost
Musical direction by Gerry Dieffenbach
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Where Eagles Dare Theatre (closed)
Review by Charles Battersby

As its full title suggests, A Musical Journey with the music of Brel, Weill, Aznavour, and Blau takes the audience on a trip through time and space using the songs of some of the 20th century's greatest composers. Singer Vickie Phillips and accompanist Gerry Dieffenbach start by taking their listeners back to Brussels in the 1950s with the works of Jacques Brel. Then it's a little further back in time and off to Berlin with a medley of Kurt Weill, then back again to Belgium for the works of Eric Blau, and along the way a few tangents are taken to squeeze in a song or two by Charles Aznavour.

Formated more like a cabaret show than a musical revue, A Musical Journey... has Vickie Phillips breaking the fourth wall and interacting with the audience between songs. Occasionally her accompanist, the cheeky Gerry Dieffenbach, let go of the keys long enough to fire off a quip.

The selection of songs by Brel should be familiar to those who have seen Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well & Living in Paris, though there's enough of a difference to make "A Musical Journey..." stand on its own feet. A clever Weill medley in the first act provided most of the Weill material, though there are a few full ones by Weill, including two of his collaborations with Gershwin.

Speaking of Gershwin, his unexpectedly happy and peppy lyrics illustrated how the music took the audience through the full range of human emotions, rather than just the depression one would expect from the likes of Weill, Brel, and pals.

Also contributing to a more uplifting experience was Phillips's obvious love for the material. Phillips was informative, reverent, and wistful when speaking of her European inspirations, and couldn't help mentioning that she studied under Elly Stone (who starred in the original production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well & Living in Paris).

Phillips herself had a striking stage presence, with her soft voice, occasionally belting out a line or two when needed. Dressed in a black outfit trimmed with sparkling silver, Ms Phillips never had to worry about getting lost on the stage (her flaming red hair and glittering silver eyelashes helped too).

In true cabaret style Gerry Dieffenbach did more than just sit politely in the background and play. His strong voice and cheeky personality made for a more interesting show.

The tiny stage didn't offer much room for a set, but a street lamp was flickering away upstage, providing more ambiance than light. Completing the set design were photographs of the various composers and lyricists, and a selections of props that evoked a cabaret setting from the 40s. A rack of hats and feather boas was tucked into one corner, and a traveling trunk of costumes was nestled upstage conspicuously.

Although Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well... has been consistently performed for 30 years, and Weill's work still gets around, Ms. Phillips is doing the theatrical community a favor in presenting their work with such reverence.

Box Score:

Music/Lyrics: 2
Directing: 2
Performing: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2004 Charles Battersby