In January 1957, six years before her untimely death at 47, the great French chanteuse Édith Piaf appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall. Sixty years later, Piaf! The Show, a labor of love written and directed by Gil Marsalla and starring the remarkable Anne Carrere, hit the same stage for a single sold-out celebratory performance.
No singer can thoroughly embody the legendary Piaf, even with the kind of powerful instrument and gifted interpretive skills Carrere possesses, and thus, wisely, she and Marsalla don’t try to make their portrayal a Piaf facsimile. Rather, they take a conceptual approach that’s nonetheless very visceral and authentic.
Backed by a four-piece band, Carrere whirls through the first half in a semi-staged format, singing some of Piaf’s less-well-known songs in a sequence designed to illustrate her early life, from street singer through rise to stardom. Projections of photos and film segments help situate us in time and place, and – even more important for an American audience – convey the themes of the songs to non-French-speakers.
Slight of build like Piaf, Carrere can simultaneously bowl us over with her singing and charm us with her personality. Because of a ticketing snafu, I heard the first few songs from outside the theater, through a closed door. Even then, Carrere’s dark, stormy tones and extended rolled R’s cut through like a freshly sharpened chef knife.
The show’s first half included amusing stage business using the musicians as foils, outfits and a café table evoking scenes from the songs and from young Piaf’s life. The production thus gave Carnegie Hall something of the intimate atmosphere of a cabaret.
The arrangements are filled with dramatic changes in tempo and feel, with sprinkles of jazz amid the mid-century melodies, rootsy accordion strains, even Schubert-esque passages in “Hymne à l’Amour.” The musicians – Philippe Villa (piano), Guy Giuliano (accordion and harmonica), Laurent Sarrien (drums and percussion), and the lone non-Frenchman, American double-bassist Daniel Fabricant – have worked with Carrere long enough to become completely synchronized with her phrasing, which (especially in the first half) is quite theatrical in a sometimes decidedly un-Piaf-like way.
Yet the showmanship and intimacy persist into the second half, an effort to recreate a Piaf concert to some degree. Carrere stood stock-still, arms at her sides in Piaf’s way, to sing “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.” Elsewhere, she waved her arms about under a projected film of Piaf gesturing the same way. At the end she even climbed down off the stage, talked and danced with front-row audience members, and brought one over-eager spectator on stage.
Refreshingly, the show doesn’t focus on the tragic side of Piaf’s biography – the death at age two of her only child, her car accidents and injuries, her drug addiction, her doomed love for the married boxer Marcel Cerdan (referenced in the projections), her early death. Rather, it celebrates her life and art. Fascination with the life story of such a distinctive performer is natural, and her experiences certainly informed her singing and writing. But it’s nice to be reminded that Piaf’s career was a deserved triumph, that sometimes popular audiences recognize greatness while the great one is alive to appreciate it.
After numerous performances in Europe, and now one in New York, Piaf! The Show is easy to picture in one of those concert-style limited runs on Broadway. We’ve been treated to books and movies about the Little Sparrow in recent years, and singers around the world continue to pay tribute to Piaf in a variety of formats. But Anne Carrere and Piaf! The Show give us perhaps the best available approximation of the heated energy the irreplaceable, tragic, but living Édith Piaf brought to her fans when she was alive.