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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

PJ Baccari on the Cabot Theatre stage in "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." Photo by Mark Frohna

In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Deborah Staples and Jonathan Smoots in the Milwaukee Rep's "Speaking in Tongues." Photo by Michael Brosilow

Cold weather theater at the Rep and Skylight

Parkas. Blizzards. Descending into the deep freeze.

This is the time of the year Wisconsin theater goes for the gut. We are ready for themes and stories that grab us where we live. Just like the weather.

Two productions on Milwaukee stages are addressing some of the same profoundly human issues in dramatically different ways. The intensely emotional story songs written by the late Belgian singer-composer Jacques Brel focus on life's most visceral moments and situations -- love, loss, conflict, family and death. The Skylight Opera Theatre has mounted a vivid and affecting production of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," a frequently produced revue of 26 of the composer's songs.

In its Stiemke Theater, the Milwaukee Rep is staging "Speaking in Tongues," a chilly and chilling look at middle age malaise and how that impacts intimate relationships. The play, written by Australian dramatist and screenwriter Andrew Bovell, is close to Rep artistic director Mark Clements' heart. He directed the world premiere in England and an off-Broadway production in New York before moving to Milwaukee last year.

The Rep's current production was staged by company member Laura Gordon.

"Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" has become a theatrical evergreen since its initial production off-Broadway in 1968. Brel, who spent much of his adult life in the City of Light, wrote his lyrics in French and Dutch, reflecting his Belgian heritage, and although both languages are heard in the revue, the show is performed by four singers with English translations. Over the years songs have been added and dropped, and their performance order has been shuffled in various productions.

The revue contains no narrative thread. Each number tells a distinct story of its own, but a unifying tone that resonates with Brel's place, time and destiny in 20th century Europe hangs over the show like a moody cloud of cigarette smoke. It should be noted that Brel's adolescence was spent in Nazi-occupied Belgium, and he died at 49 from cancer.

"Jacques Brel" is often staged sparely, with an abstract set and costuming to match. Director Ray Jivoff has taken the Skylight production in the opposite direction with interesting and compelling results. He placed the show in a theatrical warehouse bursting with assorted stage curiosities.

Items that look like they belong in a carnival boneyard are stuffed into shelving units. Everything appears to be well worn. Keith Pitts is responsible for the set.

Lighting designer Jason Fassl intensifies the scenic effect with evocative splashes of light and darkness.

Jivoff has given his performers considerable stage business to do during numbers and as connecting tissue between them. Some of it involves small bits of mime, while other moments add a concrete dimension to songs. "Timid Frieda," for example, is fully realized through acting.

Common theatrical wisdom suggests that bare and spare staging directs the audience to focus more on the text, which in this show is the lyrics and music. In other words, eliminate the distractions.

But Jivoff's more florid concept has done the opposite. Brel's words, via translation, and music attain a heightened clarity, and the stories being told pop before our eyes and ears. This should not be missed.

The Skylight cast is very able. Steve Koehler kills in "Funeral Tango," a boisterously bitter declaration of how a fellow is going to even the score with some of the folks who attend his last rites. PJ Baccari nails the mockingly derisive "Jackie," a tale of yearning for the dissipated life.

Liz Baltes finds the poignance and wistfulness in Brel's "Sons Of" with a tenderly and beautifully sung performance. But the Skylight production ultimately belongs to Alison Mary Forbes, who commandeers the second act, beginning with a rousing "Ca Va," the Devil's report about how well his interests are being served on Earth.

She changes up the pace and tone with a gentle and graceful delivery of "Old Folks," and then comes roaring back with "Marieke" before topping off her terrific run as the lead singer in "Carousel." Forbes has always been under-appreciated in her hometown, and "Jacques Brel" is her statement of what she can do.

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