Different Drummer Music Theatre

at the Civic Studio Theatre

Too much pathos, too much misery, too much self-conscious suffering, and I start to laugh, which can be a real problem when listening to French love songs.

Latin American love songs sometimes have the same effect. They say, “I have been unlucky in love, pity me.” French love songs, however, seem to revel in self-pity. They say, “I have been unlucky in love, and that makes me sensitive and profound and poetic, so admire me.”

Which makes me laugh harder.

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is a revue of love songs by the late Belgian-born singer and songwriter, Jacques Brel. Many of the songs are relentlessly serious and sad, full of broken hearts and bitterness. They were written in the 1960s, a less cynical time, so their sincerity is unrelieved by irony or black humor, and the translation, by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, simply cannot reproduce whatever sonority the original French lyrics may contain.

The Different Drummer Music Theatre has found a way around this problem, however. The solution may have been accidental — the product of circumstance, not design — and it may contradict the traditional way of doing this revue, but it still works.

The solution is 13 voices. Director David Edler wanted to use 13 members of the ensemble in this production, even though it calls for only four performers. The singers take turns most of the time, singing alone or in small groups. Almost everyone gets to shine in one number, and that’s nice for them, but what’s nice for the audience is those moments when the entire cast joins in and delivers a great, gusty rendition of these mournful, narcissistic songs. William Underwood has provided delightful choral orchestrations for a few numbers, and these voices, delicately mixed, cut through the sap like an industrial solvent, making thick, gooey lyrics wonderfully fluid and moving.

The choral work begins with the very first number, “Marathon,” a lively but grim number in which Brel compares life in the 20th century to a marathon dance contest. Although cast members sing alone occasionally, it is the backup of the ensemble that makes the show sound promising.

That promise is quickly broken, however. Most of the numbers after that are sung as solos, which bring out the pretentious anguish of the lyrics. I was puzzled by the decision to have Francis X. McGee perform the third number, “Mathilde,” in a highly comic style. The song is an ironic lament by a young man who dreads the return of a woman who has rejected him, but it’s not exactly a comic song, so why have the performer exaggerate his terror, and end the song with a scream?

The next number, “Fanette,” demonstrated the wisdom of that approach. “Fanette,” sung nicely by Peter Mohawk, is another lament about an unhappy love affair. (“We were two friends in love, Fanette and I / The empty beach was warm and deceitful in July . . . “) It is so overwrought that two such songs in a row would be too bleak. Injecting comic relief whenever possible is a good idea.

Even Brel seemed to recognize that. He occasionally wrote songs with a sense of humor. “The Girls and the Dogs,” for example, compares the treachery of women to the loyalty of dogs. “Girls will treat you like trash. . . . But dogs just lick your face as they watch it end. . . . Maybe that’s why they’re man’s best friend.” Jonathan Meier, dressed as a beatnik poet, sings the song to a bevy of sighing young women who get up and storm out, one by one, as the song becomes increasingly insulting to them.

But Brel’s humor, even when supplemented by funny stage business, isn’t enough to balance the pretentious suffering of other numbers. “Timid Frieda,” for example, is a sorrowful ballad about a fallen woman. The song is so overwrought that it comes precariously close to becoming a spoof of itself. The singer, Carol Storm, dressed in a slit skirt and high heels, presents the song with a straight face. (“Timid Frieda, who will lead her on the street where the cops all perish, for they can’t break her brave new fuck you stand.”) But Storm is a natural comedienne, and if she took herself just a little more seriously the number would explode into satire, which would be a great relief.

The same is true with “The Middle Class” (“The middle class are just like pigs, the older they get, the dumber they get . . . the fatter they get, the less they regret.”) Mari Weiss delivers a nice, straightforward rendition of the song, but since the lyrics are rooted in left-wing French political sentiments from the 1960s, a lighter treatment would make Brel’s contempt more amusing.

Edler’s attempts at humor are merciful. “Madeleine” is sung by five men, including Mitchell Lester imitating Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, and all of these men are after the same woman. Lester brings a comic touch to “Jackie,” his solo number, and seems to have an instinct for what’s funny about some of the other songs.

But the choral arrangements drive the maudlin and the mawkish sentiments out of the lyrics even more effectively than humor. “Amsterdam,” which opens the second act, becomes a strong, soaring number when carried by all 13 voices, and it’s followed by Jacquie Krupka’s rendition of “Marieke,” beautifully supported by the rest of the ensemble. The harmonies and the vocal variety Underwood has woven into the ensemble pieces change the tone of this revue completely. Even a song as glum as “The Desperate Ones” (“They’ve burned their hearts so much that death is just a name . . .”) sounds triumphant when carried by 13 voices, and “If We Only Have Love” brings the show to a thundering close.

So even though I had to suppress my laughter at times when Brel’s angst seemed too synthetic and contrived, Underwood’s arrangements managed to wipe that smirk off my face, and replace it with an appreciative smile.