Having sold out, this show will be repeated on August 6, 2021.
July 14, Pangea crackled with anticipation as a crowd of artist fans and Francophiles took its seats for an effervescent salute to French esprit de corps. Often performed in English and French, the evening featured writers such as Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Charles Trenet, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. A sampling:
Sporting a red beret, Steve Ross opens the festivities with “Piano pour Piaf,” a redolent medley of Edith Piaf songs. We’re transported. The maestro is then joined by Jean Brassard whose virtuoso rendering of “La Valse a mille temps” (Jacques Brel), buoyed at first by a single repetitive note, leaves one breathless. The performer enunciates every complex lyric while animatedly dramatizing – and doesn’t, like many, go over the top.
“What is the French esprit de corps to you?” Brassard asks Ross. The response, “despair.” “The great Jean Cocteau said before Aznavour, despair was unpopular,” Brassard notes smiling. “Et maintenant” follows. (French lyric: Pierre Delanoe; English: Carl Sigman/Gilbert Becaud.) Ross’s heady vocal is just short of a sob; Brassard’s is grave, bitter. Dual language overlap works well. The Frenchman plays mournful harmonica. Arrangement is vivid.
A raffish “Grands Boulevards” (Jacques Plante/Norbert Glanzberg) from Brassard’s wonderful Yves Montand show refreshes the mood. The flâneur song, “we call it strolling,” Ross interjects, arrives gloriously insouciant. Brassard is charm on the hoof.
Guest Karen Akers inhabits two songs in pristine French as well as English. The artist relates the story told by Michel Emer’s “L’Accordioniste” with palpably empathetic feeling, then takes us on the character’s journey. When a young “fille de joie”/prostitute discovers her lover has been killed at the front, the air goes out of Akers as if struck. “Chanson” from Stephen Schwartz’ sadly rarely produced show The Baker’s Wife, is immensely moving: “And the someone who touches your hair every day/touches you now in a different way…” she tremulously sings as if the feeling is breakable.
Ross gives us a finely gauged “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern), musically painting the City of Light and Charles Trenet’s poetic “La Mer”: “The sea/That we see dancing/Along the clear gulfs/With silver reflections…” Unfussy versions excavate emotion. His “Fanette” is heart wrenching. (English lyric: Mort Shuman and Eric Blau/Jacques Brel.)
Brassard enacts the sad, comic “Madeleine” (English lyric Eric Blau/Jacques Brel) as if in a silent film. He might be a 15 year-old suffering unrequited love. “Plaisir d’amour” (Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian/Jean-Pierre Martini) emerges a lovely duet by Ross and Brassard. Cole Porter’s “Can Can” is effusively frothy.
The show is artful and thoroughly entertaining. One leaves humming and buoyed.
Caveats: Stephanie Biddle has an appealing, raspy alto better suited to other musical genres. She seems talented and game, but uncomfortable. Accordion playing is not up to demands made on it here. The show wants editing.
Opening photo courtesy of the production. Left to right: Jean Brassard, Steve Ross, Stephanie Biddle, Karen Akers
Steve Ross, Jean Brassard, Karen Akers, Stephanie Biddle
Second Avenue at 11th Street
An intimate room with excellent food, a knowledgeable bar, and affable service