Show boasts French polish. By KEN LONGWORTH. 28th January 1999. Newcastle Herald
John Waters' new tribute show, Cafe Brel, features the popular performer singing for 90 minutes in French. A foreign lingo? He must be off his rocker!
Not so, according to critics and audiences in Sydney, where Cafe Brel premiered in late November.
This collection of two dozen of the songs of Belgian-born Jacques Brel (1929-1978) has won standing ovations, with attendees finding that Brel's passionate music, Waters' heart-felt delivery and the accompaniment of a piano-accordion-accented five-piece band makes the language unimportant in obtaining an understanding of the emotions expressed.
While many of Brel's songs were recorded in English translation in the 1960s and 70s by artists including Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles and Rod McKuen, Brel himself would only ever perform them in the original French.
Brel, who made Paris his home early in his life, believed that the passion of his lyrics about love, loss and social injustice came through most intently in the language in which they were written.
Waters, who sang Brel's songs in late night shows at the Chevron Hotel in Sydney's Kings Cross in the early 1970s, agrees.
So he took the brave step, when developing Cafe Brel in association with musical director and long-time friend Stewart d'Arrietta, of deciding to honour Brel's intentions and perform in French.
Waters gives a brief English paraphrase of each song before launching into it ? just enough explanation to make non-French-speaking audience members receptive to the bitter-sweet, satiric or wistful vein that follows. The emphasis is on the songs. There is none of the biographical element of Waters' popular John Lennon tribute, Looking Through a Glass Onion.
Cafe Brel will be staged (in more than the normal sense of the word) at Newcastle's Civic Theatre on February 12 and 13.
To get the right cabaret atmosphere, the audience will be seated at cafe tables on the theatre's stage, with waiters providing a drinks service during the show. John Waters and the band will be on an extension of the stage covering the orchestra pit, with the theatre's beautiful classic auditorium as a backdrop.
Indeed, Newcastle audiences will get a better deal than their Sydney counterparts. In the capital city, the show's five-week premiere run was in the concrete-bunker-like downstairs theatre at the Seymour Centre, with a token handful of cafe tables replacing the front row of seats and audience members only allowed to bring in drinks purchased in plastic cups before the show.
The big question is whether there is an audience in Newcastle for Brel's songs, 21 years after his death. While the titles of his songs, such as Mathilde, Amsterdam, Next and If You Go Away, may ring only faint bells, audience members probably will find the tunes familiar. As for the quality of the show . . . well, even the French-language newspaper Le Courrier Australien found Waters' French to be `impeccable' and called his Brel tribute `a brilliant hommage'. Cafe Brel's February 12 and 13 performances will be at 9.30pm (time for a good French meal first!).