Gay Marshall takes us on a romantic excursion through Paris in her stylish yet warm-hearted cabaret show Gay’s Paree!. Poised over a table of tiny models of Paris landmarks, she sets up each song with stories of her adventures living and working as an actor and singer in the City of Light. The show is a lovely compendium of masterful singing and spirited storytelling.
The key is that Marshall always places her technical vocal skills in the service of the material. As the best cabaret and theatrical singers do, she lives the songs. Because of that, we follow her willingly.
The dozen or so numbers include songs made famous by Edith Piaf, several written by Jacques Brel, and others. Marshall herself wrote the English translations of the French in a number of the selections. Feelingly accompanied by pianist Ian Herman, a musician of high finesse, she sings in both languages, often in the same song, always making it easy for non-French speakers to understand the meaning. The music’s charm and beauty are usually enough to get lost in, in any case.
Opening with the ironic “Another Song About Paris,” Marshall acknowledged how clichéd it is to sing about the fabled city. But she also nods to the complexity of its cultural history, owning up to feeling condescended to as a newcomer there as well as charmed by the city and its denizens as she pursued her career in theaters like the Olympia and the Folies Bergère and as a busker on the streets and bridges. At last night’s performance, in the context of the just-completed American election, she also acknowledged France as the birthplace of existentialism.
“The French have an endearing arrogance,” Marshall told StageBuddy last year, “which is perhaps what every American who buys a self-help book want to achieve. There is authority, everyone has pride about who they are…I grew to appreciate this confidence, but don’t always want to be around it. I loved living in Paris, but I love living in New York now.”
Marshall conjured the romance of Paris in a New York club last night, singing Piaf’s “Marie La Française” and Charles Aznavour‘s “La Bohème.”
She introduced a song called “Les Grands Boulevards” by explaining that she learned it phonetically as a child from an Yves Montand record, long before she understood French. It reminded me of my own early chansons education hearing my mother’s Edith Piaf and Mireille Mathieu records repeatedly as a small child. I’m sure they influenced my later choice to study French rather than Spanish.
The set included a show tune, the beautiful “Stone” from Starmania; a comic number, “J’suis Snob,” with Marshall’s own English lyrics sending up Parisian snottiness; a wrenching wartime medley of Piaf’s “Les Grognards” and Brel’s “Sons Of”; and a tearjerking performance of Brel’s “Quand On n’a Que L’amour.” (The song is known confusingly in English as “If We Only Have Love.” That has always bothered me. To unambiguously express the sense, it should be “If We Have Only Love.”)
Another Brel highlight was “La Chanson des Vieux Amants.” Here Marshall sang her own translation of the lyrics with extraordinary passion. All through the generous, smart, funny show, carefully crafted yet emotionally authentic, she lived the songs, and let us live them – and her love affair with Paris – too.