By Sarah Downs
At the Town Hall on Saturday night, Jules Grison sang his heart out, sharing his love of the great composer and singer Charles Aznavour with an audience who deserved neither his time nor his talent. In my years of performing and attending theater, I have never witnessed such disregard for a performer or, indeed, for fellow audience members. All these supposed devotees Aznavour, ready to cheer his music and yet they cannot stop chatting, texting, filming, wandering in and out of the theater, arriving up to an hour late – it left me speechless. I can only offer my most heartfelt apology to this gifted singer and excellent band for the treatment they received.
Alas, in addition to trying to reach an audience of witless boors, Grison also had to compete with jarring lighting cues, messy, ad hoc direction, and the unwelcoming cavernous space that is the Town Hall. Nevertheless, with Herculean effort and patience, Grison did connect. This is a testament not only to his talent and commitment, but also his professionalism. Handsome and lanky, Grison – part Yves Montand elegance, part Las Vegas showman – has what it takes to deliver on Aznavour’s legacy. He is supported by a top notch band: Phillipe Villa on piano, the brilliant Frederic Viale on accordion, Benoit Pierron on drums, and Giliard Lopes on double bass.
Grison bounded onstage with the perfect splashy opener J’aime Paris au Moi de Mai celebrating, what else, Paris. He proceeded to take us through the extraordinary range of Aznavour’s oeuvre, from 50’s music hall to 6o’s pop to 70’s cabaret.
The best moments of the evening included an affecting rendition of the nostalgic song Boheme. Grison deftly sketched in mid-air as if at a canvas, conjuring a portrait of Aznavour both musically and gesturally, as a portrait of Aznavour gradually appeared simultaneously on the projection screen upstage center. The poignant moment succeeded in its simplicity. Similarly, the song Jezebel succeeded in its exuberance. As the instrumentals ramped up the speed in a whirl of eastern-inflected music, Grison and band whipped up a heck of a show stopper.
Another highlight was Comme Ils Disent, a song of ahead of its time. Written in 1972, it is sung with dignity from the point of view of a homosexual drag performer. Again, it is the simplicity of Grison’s performance that brings this song to life. Similarly, honoring the essence of the material lends Grison’s performance of Sa Jeunnesse its palpable sense of longing.
I do wish there had been some translations. I speak French, and Grison’s enunciation is impeccable so I could understand what he was singing, but I fear the poetry may have been lost on much of the adience. Luckily, Grison also sang in English, including the delightful Dance Across the Floor, in which Grison charmed a smitten audience member by pulling her onstage to dance with him.
The concert, absent audience, has some issues. Things I wish:
Lose the hyper-active lighting changes in ever-changing hues. Careful curation of the lighting design will be far more effective. We especially need much more opportunity to witness Grison alone in a spotlight on a darkened stage, spinning his web.
Please also go Marie Kondo on the set. It is littered with obstacles. Love the gorgeous Steinway piano but it was at least 75 feet long, dwarfing pianist Phillipe Villa, isolating him downstage right. Accordionist Frederic Viale was equally isolated downstage left behind some large boxes. In the chasm between, drummer Benoit Pierron and bass player Giliard Lopes stood as if on their own little islands. Why?
Use the projection screen with greater sophistication, and when its not in use find some way to make it less of a white screen of Damacles. Beautiful photos of the Seine at sunset, photos of 1950’s Paris, and the magical drawing of Aznavour in Boheme worked very well. Otherwise, the screen’s clunkiness became an unfortunate distraction.
At the very end, Grison singing solo at the piano (yes he also plays piano and guitar) brought everything into focus, even for this audience. As he sang two of Aznavour’s most famous songs, in English Yesterday, When I Was Young (Hier Encore) and She, you could hear a pin drop. It was beautiful. Grison may have been throwing his pearls before swine, but in the end the pearls won.
Formidable! Aznavouri. Presented by Directo Productions. Gil Marsalla, director. Starring Jules Grison. Band: Phillipe Villa on piano; Frederic Viale on accordion; Benoit Pierron on drums; Giliard Lopes on double bass.
At the Town Hall (123 West 43rd St., NYC) one night only. January 14th.