Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

And sometimes we were almost open,
and sometimes we would almost touch.
I think we wanted very little,
but that always seemed too much.
— Jacques Brel, "Song for Old Lovers"

How to put a name to the ineffable? An off-Broadway revue of post-World War II material written by Jacques Brel (translated from the French), the revival of a legendary forty-year-old production, presented now (and closing this weekend) in a slightly seedy renovated zipper factory on West 37th, complete with makeshift rows of car seats and couches. A singular sensation: the music is tragic, scarred, human, hopeful, and buoyant, one up, the next down, most often both at the same time. The show is plot-free, and the overall effect is mostly that of a stage peopled with ghosts, but vague character outlines are visible.

First is Gay Marshall—who can't be five feet tall, or weigh 100 pounds—the smallest engine making the biggest sound. Her real-life specialty is Edith Piaf, and here she has a series of chiming anthems that all somehow turn into lullabies as she sings them ("My Childhood" was unspeakably lovely). I've no clue what her real age is, but with elegantly lined features, a world-weary voice, and an almost preteen physique, she comes across like a 75-year-old 12-year-old. Know what I mean? From this end to that one and not quite either, plus everything in between. And never was a name so well suited to its person.

Robert Cuccioli is menacing and sly, slick and sleek (no surprise that he played Javert in Les Mis, and both Jekyll and Hyde). Unctuous would be the word, jaded and charming, too, a handsome, buttoned-up screwball forever losing and regretting the women he's lost. A great, irresistible martini of a man.

Constantine Maroulis (new to me) is the wild, wandering young soldier with a hair-trigger temper and flares to burn. He performs "The Statue" as if he's nailed to the wall, balanced between a helmet and a staff, without a clue of how he got there. It's chilling and bewildering.

Last is Jayne Paterson, a cross between Sarah Jessica Parker and Jane Krakowski, as the cheeky blonde whore-with-a-heart-of-gold. Wide-eyed and not at all innocent, she gets to sing mostly torchy, pained numbers about death and growing old. Pretty, pretty pained numbers about death and growing old.

Final performance Sunday: SEE IT if you can.

+ Personal sidenote: my friend Meredith and I once spent a long summer afternoon playing the 45 of "Seasons in the Sun," sung by Terry Jacks, over and over on my parents' screened back porch (Goodbye my friend, it's hard to die...when all the birds are singing in the sky...). We were pathetically addicted to sad stories that had nothing at all to do with the placid small-town lives we were living (see also "Billy, Don't Be a Hero") and liked to share them with the neighborhood. Turns out Jacks was rewriting Brel's lyrics to "Le Moribond" ("The Dying Man"). I'd better call Meredith and tell her; maybe she'll serenade me.