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Review: Jacques Brel's Lonsesome Losers of the Night

By Rick Pender · May 29th, 2009 · Fringe
I’ve been a fan of Jacques Brel’s sad, despairing tunes for more than three decades, from the moment I first saw a production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a selection of approximately two dozen of the French songwriter’s sad, impassioned paeans to lives of desolation and hope. When I learned that the 2009 Cincinnati Fringe would include a new collection of material, I was excited. The advance material promised an 80-minute show featuring 21 of his songs, 14 previously not translated into English.

What is actually being presented for the Fringe is 10 songs in about 40 minutes with a program note indicating that “this is just a sampling of the original production. Join us for the full version, running this summer at a location to be announced.” I’m all for using the Fringe to experiment with material. (That’s what last year’s Don’t Make Me Pull This Show Over accomplished, leading to a fuller, more polished production this season at Ensemble Theatre.) But presenting a cut-down, less than fully rehearsed version of a more coherent work as a come-on for something to be offered in a month or two is not what I envisioned.

Lonesome Losers of the Night was originally mounted in Chicago a year ago by a company called Theo Ubique; it was well received by audiences there. The Cincinnati production is staged by director Lyle Benjamin, under the auspices of his Queen City Off-Broadway company.

He’s assembled a very able Cincinnati-based cast — Jazz singer Eugene Goss, and three more theatrical performers, Ken Early, Tony Wright and Liz Vosmeier — and I presume that more rehearsal will precede the promised production. That will help, as will the time for Goss’s voice to recover; it seemed strained to the point of inaudibility, especially relative to his fellow cast members, on Lonesome Losers’ opening night at the Fringe.

The Duveneck Flats venue on Vine Street, across from Lavomatic Café, does not offer friendly acoustics. The musical accompaniment (piano, cello and violin) was 20 feet away from the performers and not balanced, especially given Goss’ vocal difficulties. Rather than limiting the movement of his cast to a narrower area, Benjamin has them wandering back and forth across a space that’s too broad and with obstructed sightlines due to several pillars in the room. There was no necessity for more acting space; in fact, claustrophobic intimacy would have enhanced the show’s desperate atmosphere. The result is that the minimally drawn characters feel ill-defined and disconnected.

Because Fringe venues host multiple shows, sets and lighting must be easily moved and removed; nevertheless, Lonesome Losers’ tiny portable bar with a few glasses and a couple of chairs placed haphazardly across the stage fails to suggest a seedy tavern on Amsterdam’s waterfront. What’s more, Early and Wright wear different military uniforms — both appear to be soldiers, not sailors, as described in the show’s promotional materials and in the opening song about “the port of Amsterdam” — that looked too crisp for a couple of drunks killing time in a bar.

Vosmeier is supposed to be a dead-eyed whore, but she’s dressed and made up like a high-class hooker. I found it hard to imagine why these characters would connect — or even be in the same place of business — beyond the air of simple desperation necessitated by the songs being sung. Goss’ bartender presses the whore for his share of her take, but that’s about the only dramatic action offered. Otherwise it’s mostly one or two people singing sad, lonely songs.

So let’s focus on what was good about Lonesome Losers: It’s Brel’s music and the singing voices, particularly Early and Vosmeier. While he’s not a convincing drunk (his rendition of “The Drunk” uses too many clichés of inebriated behavior), his rendition of the poignant song “My Childhood” is drenched with regret and longing. Vosmeier’s numbers are more conflicted, in keeping with her whore’s resigned, worldly character, I suppose, so they have a hard edge, especially the show’s title song. After Early sings a touching piece, “I Love You,” she follows with “I Don’t Know Why,” alternating between reaching out to him and pushing him away.

I’ve urged people to pay attention to Brel’s songs for years, and this show offers enough to give you a taste. I’m troubled that Lonesome Losers of the Night is not more dramatically compelling (and by the notion that it’s a rehearsal for something to be offered later).

Brel’s soulful perspective and moving music triumphs even when the presentation is rough. Too bad — this could have been so much more.

Performed at Duveneck through June 6. See performance dates and preview here.



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