by Lynn on October 15, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs

Original conception by Jennifer Tarver
Created by Jennifer Tarver and Justin Ellington
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Musical direction by Justin Ellington
Designed by Teresa Przybylski
Lighting by Kimberley Purtell
Sound by Michael Laird
Starring: Kenny Brawner
Andrew Penner
Louise Pitre
Saidah Baba Talibah

An audacious attempt to reinterpret the brilliant songs of Charles Aznavour.

The Story. Charles Aznavour, the French-Armenian troubadour, wrote 800 songs that dig deep into the wounded, disappointed heart; illuminates the many colours and aspects of love; yearns for yesterday when he was young; and ponders what makes a man. There isn’t an emotion he doesn’t write about in a sensitive, sometimes angry, always perceptive way. He writes songs that touch us all.

Director Jennifer Tarver wanted to create a show of Aznavour’s songs that would showcase the poet, survivor, performer and lover in his work. It is her first production since taking over as Artistic Director of Necessary Angel, the company producing the show. Over the three years she has been working on the production, the performer has become the focus of the piece, as seen through the various performing styles of four accomplished singers.

Tarver and her creative partner Justin Ellington, who is also the musical director and wrote the musical arrangements, have selected 20 songs that cover the spectrum of Aznavour’s brilliance. Ellington has also applied the songs to different genres of music, such as jazz, pop, ballads etc.

The Production. Teresa Przybylski’s set is composed of two black platforms suggesting two levels. Performers step from one level to the other, and occasionally down onto the stage itself. Besides the amplified six piece band (which plays us into the space with easy jazz) stage right, there is also a white, compact keyboard in the centre of the first platform.

The Band Leader (Dave Restivo) announces Kenny Brawner with great fanfare. Brawner enters wearing a white suit and a dazzling smile. He sits at the white keyboard and begins playing and singing a gentle jazzed version of “Yesterday When I Was Young.” Mr. Brawner is also a kind of narrator for the various philosophies of life of Aznavour. The other performers appear without fanfare or introduction: Andrew Penner, Saidah Baba Talibah and Louise Pitre.

Penner represents a one-man-band street performer; suitcase on the ground with a contraption just under it which when stepped on produces a drum sound against the side of the suitcase for rhythm. He puts a harmonica holder around his neck so he can play his harmonica while he plays unmelodic guitar at the same time. Then the final touch–he takes off his hat and places it on the ground just near the suitcase, into which passers by can throw their loose change. Or not.

Saidah Baba Talibah sings of the thrill and anticipation of love in “I Want to be Kissed” and the joy of it in “Love At Last You Have Found Me.” Hers is a strong, expressive pop-singer voice.

Finally, the powerhouse Louise Pitre sings of the disappointment of love and life in “La Bohème,” “On Ne Sait Jamais” and “I Drink” to name just three.

Director Jennifer Tarver manoeuvres the singers from one level to another to sing their songs, usually solo, so they are the focus of the scene/song. But then she also has other singers moving in the background. Occasionally if Pitre is singing down stage, Saidah Baba Talibah is laying prone on the upper platform, turning from one side of her body to the other. At other times, Pitre is prone on the platform doing the same fidgety rolling, while another singer is downstage, singing.

In one emotional song, Pitre finishes the song and sits to the side of the stage in shadow, while Brawner at the piano finishes the last two lines. The applause is muted because the audience doesn’t know who to applaud—the singer who just sung her guts out, who is now unseen in shadow, or the man who just sang two lines of the song without emotion. I don’t think that confusion is a good thing.

Comment. I can appreciate the huge effort and commitment that went into this production. I can appreciate the great respect all involved have for Aznavour’s source material. I can appreciate the creators of the production want to present it to audiences who know Aznavour’s work and those who are not familiar with it, in a new way, applied to different genres of music.

The problem is that, for all the good intentions, What Makes a Man doesn’t work. You have to wonder ‘what were they thinking?’ They have put a six piece amplified band, along with the amplified white keyboard in the centre of the stage, and four body-microphoned signers, in the small 244 seat Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, known for its lousy acoustics at the best of times. The result is that with so much blaring ‘music’ many of the lyrics are lost. We are there to hear the man’s lyrics and we can’t because everything is conspiring against it.

For all the individual accomplishments of the singers they often do not do justice to the music or the interpretation. Kenny Brawner is not comfortable with delivering Aznavour’s philosophy. He drops words and his delivery is choppy. The same goes for his jazz renditions. For example, “Yesterday When I Was Young” does not approach the wistfulness or yearning infused in that song. Jazzing it up doesn’t help.

Andrew Penner and his director have established the street performer as a clown. His singing of various songs makes the songs seem indistinguishable. So when he comes to “What Makes A Man” a serious song to be sure, it falls flat because we don’t believe him. Aznavour might have been a street performing troubadour—he was not a clown.

I can appreciate Saidah Baba Talibah’s strong singing and her liveliness in her singing—it’s the depth that’s occasionally missing to get deep into the song.

Louse Pitre certainly knows how to dig deep and get into the gut twisting emotion of the songs, but she also needs a strong director to rein her in from presenting them as one long, raging scream. She needed a strong director on Company—her previous show at this very theatre—and she needs a strong director and musical director to guide her to be more nuanced, subtle and varied. Pitre is not helped here.

Jennifer Tarver has directed stunning productions elsewhere. She has an inventive gift for some material. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why she deliberately upstages her singers consistently with distracting movement upstage, while a singer is the focus of the scene downstage. Perhaps she is challenging the audience to focus and not be distracted by her deliberately distracting staging. Mystifying.

It’s a great idea to showcase the glorious songs of Charles Aznavour. Unfortunately this just isn’t the show to do it.

Produced by Necessary Angel

Opened: October 9, 2014
Closes: November 2, 2014
Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women.
Running Time: 65 minutes, approx.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.