French Lessons, presented by Jean Brassard and Steve Ross, two of the most elegant musical boulevardiers* around, is a show evoking first class trips on ocean liners, satin and martini drenched nightclubs, and an era of stylish performance of which we regretfully see only glimpses today. This time, this time, this time there’s no time to waste/We know the time we have cannot be replaced they begin, singing alternately in French and English (“Le Temps,” Jeff Davis/Charles Aznavour/English lyric, Gene Lees). The room audibly sighs with pleasure.
A new translation and beautiful arrangement of “La Valse a Mille Temps” (JacquesBrel/English lyric, Arnie Johnstone) follows. Both men sing in both languages; little is missed. “I worked very hard on my French for this evening and I’m really quite proud of it,” comments Ross. Brassard raises an eyebrow suggesting the need for improvement. In fact, he happens to have a list of mispronounced words. Repartee is frothy and classy, segueing into a playful rendition of Betty Comden/Adolf Green/Roger Eden’s “French Lesson.”
The iconic “Sous le Ciel de Paris” (Hubert Giraud/Jean Drejac/English lyric, Kim Gannon) is appropriately lush and waltzy. Ross happily disappears into the music. When Brassard closes his eyes and hums, you’d follow him anywhere. Their harmony is silvery. Ross’s version of “Ya d’la Joie”, a marvelously theatrical Charles Trenant song filled with wonderful characters, is enacted by Brassard with great comic flair. We hear and see the baker, the mailman, and the Eiffel Tower who is so bored stuck in her corner, she takes a walk to the Seine and jumps in— “ah choo!” It’s all a dream, of course, but awakening to the gray skies of Paris, the singer is content.
Sidewalk cafés, waiters balancing trays morning, night and noon/Taxi cabs toot while a guy on a flute fingers Claire de Lune: the cinematic, “Pigalle” (Georges Ulmer/Geo Roger) gives way to “April in Paris” (Vernon Duke/E.Y. “Yip” Harburg) performed by Ross with plaintive, sighing restraint.
“I Will Wait for You,” “Watch What Happens” (both Michel Legrand/ English lyric, Norman Gimbel), and “Windmills of Your Mind/”Tous les Moulins de Mon Coeur” (Michel Legrand/ Eddie Mornay/English lyric, Marilyn and Alan Bergman), offer a medley of what Brassard refers to as the influence of American movie musicals. Performances are sweet, but not saccharine; attributed the gravitas that makes these songs moving and evergreen. Duets are deftly configured. There isn’t a gratuitous expression or gesture. Simplicity of staging and economic, naturalistic dialogue imbues this show with wonderful presence.
“While we were busy receiving all the greats from France,” Ross begins, “…Josephine Baker became an extraordinary sensation in Paris. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be with us tonight, but…” The curtain parts. Brassard appears trussed up in a floral headpiece and skirt made of plastic bananas—an homage to the one that made Baker famous.“J’ai Deux Amours” (Géo Koger/Henri Varna/Vincent Scotto/Jo Bouillon/Henri Christiné—Baker’s signature piece) he sings and mugs with captivating piquancy. Hips insinuate, arms undulate, fingers spread. His/her final note ends with a familiar pose from “Swan Lake.” Brava! Brava! The audience calls out laughing.
Brassard’s “Tu Verras” (Chico Buarque/Claude Noggaro) and Ross’s “Fanette” (Jacques Brel/Mort Shuman/Eric Blau) are both powerfully rendered. The first with desperate insistence, the second with meditative poignancy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ross look out into the audience so much—it’s arresting. And Brassard is an actor, making every word credible. His inflection is pure and direct. He wears his heart on his face.
Wearing a wool cap and grasping a questionable bunch of red carnations, Brassard delivers “Madeline” (Jacques Brel/English lyric, Eric Blau) like good vaudeville. The boy is besotted and blind, even when stood up. Ross translates. “What Now My Love”/”Et Maintenant” (Gilbert Becaud/ P.Delanoe/English lyric, Carl Sigman) is a delicate duet from the piano bench, each man in turn taking the higher phrases. The piano solo is heartbreaking. “Can Can” (Cole Porter) with almost all the delightful verses, puts Ross firmly in his element. It’s a rousing, joyful wink enjoyed by performers and audience alike.
The well paced show ends with “a little bouquet of classic serenades” and a cherry-on-top duet (encore) of “C’est Si Bon” (Henri Betti/Andre Hornez/English lyric, Jerry Seelen). Jean Brassard and Steve Ross, eminently complimented by one another, offer an evening of sensitive interpretation, rousing fun, charm, and genial virtuosity. It’s a match made in Heaven.
*boulevardier –1879, from Fr., “one who frequents the boulevard;” i.e.: man-about-town, one fond of urban living and society.
Photo credit: David Krueger
For more information go to the websites for:
French Lessons en Chansons
Jean Brassard and Steve Ross, Vocals
Steve Ross, Arrangements/Piano
Consultant- David Krueger
158 West 72nd Street