Letter from Paris: Marie Béatrice Di Savona

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The other day I got a phone call from Marie-Alice Béraud, the owner of Hôtel La Serre on rue Cler, which is listed in my new book, Romantic Paris. Marie-Alice came to one of my recent book signings, got my book, and enthusiastically phoned me the next day after recognizing the lyrics of les Prénoms de Paris in my book. She had just seen the song staged in a new musical show, Bonjour Monsieur Brel, and urged me to see the performance. This is one of Brel’s lesser known love songs, but it’s the one I chose, among all the hundreds of French love songs that I know, because it epitomizes the experience of falling in love in Paris. As Marie-Alice had only words of praise for the show, I immediately penciled it in my diary and phoned the theatre a few hours later to make reservations.   The show is playing at the Sudden Theatre–a few steps away from place Jules Joffrin, due north of Montmartre. This is the “good” part of the 18th (le bon dix-huitième), meaning the socially respectable section of the arrondissement. This also suggests the safer part (contrary to le mauvais dix-huitième) which implies the colorful, African La Goutte-d’Or and the Dickensian La Chapelle, to be avoided after dark when on your own). Place Jules Joffrin is the “village square” of the 18th arrondissement, genuine and vibrant with the timeless frills of provincial France. It may not boast the picturesque charm of Montmartre, but by the same token it is less touristy and less spoiled. As I climbed out of the métro station, I was greeted at street level by the festive Mairie, brightly festooned with light bulbs and a Joyeux Noël inscription. The cheerful light bulbs extended the festive atmosphere into the neighboring side-streets without the glamour of the Champs-Elysées, but with a homey touch that is so pleasingly French. It was a cold night as it should be, alas without any snow (we haven’t had a white Christmas in Paris for donkey’s years). We were early and stopped for a hearty, basic meal at the brasserie that has a great view of the Mairie. The place was packed with people. Fresh oysters, substantial portions of steak, French fries, red wine, and other traditional brasserie dishes were whisked from the kitchen to the restaurant tables by harried waiters in the midst of the characteristic din of a French restaurant, created by a concert of contented diners. We were fully content ourselves by the time we were ready to make our way to the theatre, a relatively recent neighborhood place, opposite a synagogue that I didn’t know and will have to check out in the near future. This is one of the things I love about Paris–there is always something new to discover. Since my new book has shifted me into a romantic gear, I am constantly watchful for romantic stories, what is called in French déformation professionnelle (professional distortion) and I prick my ears whenever I hear something about couples or lovers. I was therefore delighted to be told that Bonjour Monsieur Brel is the joint venture of husband and wife: Yves Lévêque, Premier Prix de la Chanson française, who oversaw the musical aspect of the show; and Marie Béatrice Di Savona, who selected the songs and staged them into a string of miniature tableaux that flowed into one another. Marie Béatrice Di Savona’s work brings to life Brel’s familiar characters whom we have been humming all these years: Jef, so clumsy and shy as he offers his candy doggedly to the cruel members of the fair sex; his sister Mathilde, Marieke, Madeleine who stands up her suitors; Gaston who is so madly in love with Rosa; the port of Amsterdam with its sailors and whores; pathetic (sometimes funny) slices of life played out by the young and energetic troupe of La Compagnie Ad Libitum, who are paying advance homage to Brel in this “his” year (2003), the 25th anniversary of his passing. Although none of them could render Brel’s unique and inimitable voice, their enthusiastic youthfulness and commitment was incredibly communicative and the audience gave them a standing ovation. I, for my part, was moved by the fact that such young kids, some of whom (or all of whom?) were not even born when Brel died, were so involved in his songs, a proof (if need be) that la chanson française (and belge…) is alive and kicking, and worth your outing even if your French is iffy. MERRY CHRISTMAS! Bonjour Monsieur BrelSudden Theatre14 bis, rue Sainte Isaure, 75018 ParisMétro Jules JoffrinReservations: 01 42 62 35 00Through January 5th, 2003 Copyright © Thirza Vallois —Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Volumes I, II, & III published by Iliad Books, UK, and Romantic Paris, co-published by Interlink (US) and Arris Books (UK). Visit her at www.thirzavallois.com
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