Edith Piaf is a national treasure in France and after an extraordinarily difficult and at times poignantly tragic life, she became an international singing legend who appeared at Carnegie Hall twice in 1956 and 1957, to sold out audiences. For those unacquainted with the magnificent talent of the songstress, songwriter, and actress, Marion Cotillard brought her to life and won an Oscar, Cesar, BFTA, and numerous other awards for her performance as Piaf in La Vie En Rose. Piaf’s recordings still sell and a few clips of her appearances have been filmed appear on YouTube.
Piaf’s unique musicality, haunting voice and thrilling song interpretations have been brought to life this time by a strikingly gifted French performer, Anne Carrere, in a multi-media production of Piaf, Le Spectacle. The show presented by Gil Marsalla & Directo Productions opened in New York City on October 23 at Symphony Space and is on tour and can be seen in Princeton, NJ, New Bedford, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C., before moving on to Canada where the show will play to audiences in Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec.
The production has been on a global tour to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Piaf and has been played to sold out audiences in Brazil and elsewhere, a testimony to her beloved songs and sound. The production is inspiring as it is exceptional and couldn’t come at a better time for spreading good will in the happy recognition of a woman who will be eternally loved for her grace as the “Little Sparrow” and for her perseverance through trials, loss, and heartbreak.
Piaf! Le Spectacle configures the life of Piaf in two 45-minute acts. The first segment suggests elements of her life through songs, scenes staged on the streets and in cafes where she evolved in her career before she skyrocketed to international fame. The combination of vibrant and soulful songs suggest a journey Piaf takes through Montmartre, Paris during the earlier years of her life. The visuals projected on the backdrop show historic photos of Paris during the time of “La Vie en Rose.”
In this first segment, Carrere’s powerful, lilting, and unmistakable Piaf-styled interpretations of French songs gradually win the audience to another time and place when Piaf carried out her life, walked the streets, worked in cafes, was “found” and became an established singer. As Carrere thrilled us with less noted Piaf melodies, archived black and white stills of hip, prestigious Parisian coffeehouses, the haunts of well known philosophers and writers, (Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots,) bistros, marketplace street scenes, historic shots of Le Pigalle, Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, the Seine, etc., flashed on the screen/backdrop.
The band comprised of piano (Arnaud Fuste), accordion (Guy Giuliano), bass (Fabrice Bistoni), and drums/xylophone (Laurent Sarrien), in the first segment are dressed in casual, cafe-style performer outfits with scarves and berets, like Carrere’s Piaf. Not only do they provide the perfect haunting, evocative accompaniment, they also help to solidify the story of Piaf’s earlier life told in pictures, music, and Piaf’s poignant singing via Carrere.
Carrere acts some of Piaf’s autobiographical songs, which are about love and convey Piaf’s inability to remain aloof from l’amour. On the backdrop are also projected photos of amours. During her songs, Carrere focuses on the musicians as her players relate to her in various song/scenes effectively. I and my surrounding female audience members were entranced by Carrere’s and Giuliano’s suggested attraction and involvement strengthening and heightening the song motifs. The beauty of the bond was a light suggestion, never heavy-handed and Carrere’s voice and Guiliano’s mellow and lyrical accordion accompaniment revealed a depth of emotion between them that was understated and therefore more striking and memorable.
In the second act, Carrere is dressed in Piaf’s signature black dress and the band is outfitted in formal attire. At this point Piaf has made it and she is singing her well known repertoire moving from the Paris Olympia, the music hall where she achieved lasting fame, to international venues.
One of the highlights of this segment occurs when Carrere makes an appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Carrere is particularly clever in her rapport with the audience, which she engages to sing “Autumn Leaves” with her. Also in this segment, she dances with audience members and makes an invite of a gentleman onstage whom she effectively sings to.
Carrere is confident, ebullient and her winable personality shines. But throughout, there is the undercurrent of loss and heartbreak, reflected in the screen projections of photos of the married boxer Marcel Cerdan, with whom she had a torrid affair and whom she lost in a plane crash. The song selections that relate to the photograph screen projections are telling.
Throughout, Carrere is a remarkable Piaf. Her singing is nonpareil. And how she phrases Piaf’s powerhouses, “Padam, Padam,” “La Foule,” “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rein,” and “Mon Dieu,” is a rare treat. It is unfortunate that the production was only in New York City for one lovely night. By the end, the crowd wanted more songs and Carrere and her musician friends received shouts of “Bravo,” and “Encore, Encore,” from the won-over audience. However, as the tour progresses, there is a possibility that it may return to the East Coast of the United States and beyond, which is great. The show in Princeton, NJ has been sold out, an indication that many realize this is a unique experience. Indeed, it would be a shame not to be able revisit the production and this remarkable celebration of Edith Piaf’s life and career through song again.
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