at the Royal George Theatre Center

Actually he’s not; Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel died of lung cancer in 1978, a decade after this hit off-Broadway musical revue had spread his work–and his cult–to American audiences. But music this good never dies, even if it recedes from public view for a while. The songs in this two-act revue are a few decades old, but they sound astonishingly fresh today.

That’s because Brel had a knack, rare among nontheater songwriters, for creating very specific stories and characters while addressing universal issues. Like Bob Dylan at his best (in Blood on the Tracks), Brel wrote brief but intense musical dramas. His protagonists’ charisma, the result mainly of the potent melodies he gave them, often ran head-on into their frailties and failures. When Brel’s songs are sung by performers who can communicate both their throbbing musical power and their dramatic complexity, they make for gripping theater.

Happily that’s the case in the revival of Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s Brel-based revue running in the Ruggles Cabaret at the Royal George Theatre Center. Directed by Pat Victor and choreographed by Ken Ward, this strongly cast four-person show emphasizes the material’s theatricality by turning almost every song into a fully staged vignette and encouraging the singers to create distinct characterizations in each number. This may bother listeners used to cabaret shows in which the singers just stand and sing. But to this viewer, Victor and Ward’s approach highlights Brel’s wide-ranging vision of life, the better to underscore a recurring theme: the vain efforts we make to deny our mortality, clinging to illusory values like patriotism, wealth, success, sexual independence, and proper male or female behavior.

So when Lisa Steinman, a fine singing actress, performs the beautiful “I Loved,” it becomes a very real story of a woman drawing pleasure and rue from her strangely incomplete memories of a past affair (she can recall everything except the guy’s name). Steinman’s skillful glide around the stage reflects the movements she’s envisioning in her mind’s eye; her absentminded slouch against the back of her chair as she sings of “the towns where we made love and the hotels where we played games” communicates the particular links this woman draws between erotic pleasure and renewed self-esteem. All the while her haunting voice communicates the song’s loveliness. Later, in “Carousel,” with its powerful metaphor of life as a merry-go-round, a never-successful grasping for an elusive brass ring, Steinman registers both existential and physical nausea, moving around the spinning carousel created by the other actors’ pantomimes. Again, she never betrays the beauty of the music.

Steinman, who’s making her local debut, is surrounded by three talented colleagues: Larry Yando and Diane Houghton, both familiar from local theaters, and the show’s coproducer Ken Ward, a New Yorker with considerable Broadway and national-tour experience. All of them have strong moments, as soloists and in their beautifully textured harmony singing. Like Steinman, Ward has the ability to focus so fully on what he’s singing about that the audience sees it too; especially moving are his renditions of “Statue,” in which the statue of a dead war hero reflects on his fear and boredom in battle, and the beautiful lost-love song “Fanette.” Yando’s ironic bravado is particularly effective in “Funeral Tango,” in which a dead man mocks the mourners at his funeral, and “Next,” about a young soldier’s pressured induction into the army and into sex. Ward and Yando together (aided by some rather startling staging) mine all the humor and bitterness in Brel’s brilliant “Middle Class,” a Brechtian drinking song sung by two aging former radicals.

The singers are splendidly accompanied by a small band led by keyboardist Hans Wurman (who’s been playing Jacques Brel since its Chicago debut two decades ago, at the old Happy Medium). The simple, evocative set and lighting design, by Stephen R. Carns, frames the singers vividly and transforms the brick-walled Ruggles space into a sort of French town square of the soul. If Jacques Brel is no longer with us, his work is indeed alive and well in these capable hands.