Jacques Brel' is alive at JET, but...

"How much has changed since Jacques Brel sang in a smoky cabaret in the 60s," we're asked to consider at the start of the closing number of "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company in West Bloomfield.
On the one hand, not much.
Brel's music, with lyrics that hauntingly resonate with the antiwar passions of the Vietnam era, seems perfectly in tune some 40 years later in a world torn apart by Middle East conflict. "Men kill each other willingly, then pray for peace in loud laments" is just as appropriate today as it was when the production first opened in 1968 in Greenwich Village.
What HAS changed, however – and not necessarily for the better – is the concept as executed by director Mark A. Lit.
It's not that this is a bad show. Far from it, technically speaking, as the performers are highly skilled, the musicians are wonderful, the classy set by Larry Kaushansky is stunning, the choreography by Gregory Patterson is superb and the lights by Elaine Hendriks-Smith exquisitely set the mood for each song.
But the question posed above and at the end of the show also reveals this production's major flaw: What Lit has staged is not a cabaret, but a flashy musical without dialogue – and that ill-serves the material.
"Jacques Brel" is at its best when staged with only the bare essentials – four stools, two sets of stand-alone microphones and a few minor props and costume pieces – and the performers passionately pour their hearts out to the audience. For the most part these are intimate songs, and since there is no story or "through line" to stitch them together, it is the performers who must make that connection by forming an immediate one-on-one relationship with the audience – and with each other. It also allows the audience to imagine for themselves the pictures Brel paints with his colorful and expressive lyrics.
Lit's production shines when such bonds form, such as when Michelle Hooks-Stackpoole offers flower petals to men in the audience during her song "I Loved" – and they respond with big grins on their faces – or when Rusty Mewha looks lovingly in to the eyes of blushing women while searching for the girl he'll marry in "Bachelor's Dance."
But mostly what we're subjected to is a long string of disparate and fleeting song-and-dance routines that requires nothing from us but passive applause. (The unnecessary blackouts between most numbers only reinforce that disconnection.)
What also hurts this production is something I've noticed at other small venues that fit their actors with individual wireless mics: The performers hold back when singing their songs, thus transforming them into low-key conversations that lose whatever power and oomph their creators intended.