Theater Tour Review: PIAF! THE SHOW (global tour at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on October 9, 2017

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

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THE ULTIMATE FRENCH KISS

It was a one-off last night at the Athenaeum Theatre. But a long run on the road continues to beckon to Awesome Company’s bravura showcase Piaf! The Show (which will return to Chicago in April). Embarked on a 400-performance world tour, with over half a million tickets sold in more than 30 countries, this two-hour tribute recently played Carnegie Hall on the 60th anniversary of Edith Piaf’s final performance at the venue. Even without the original headliner, it must have been a homecoming to treasure.

An impersonation turned into a celebration, at the beating heart of producer-director-writer Gil Marsalla’s solid salute is Anne Carrere. More beautiful than her source and recalling Judy Garland more than the “Swallow of Montmartre” (as the show was originally titled), Carrere utterly incarnates the former Edith Giovanna Gassion (1915-1963), renamed the “Sparrow” for her plucky streetwise survivor skills. Fifty-four years after her too early-demise at 48, La Piaf, France’s all but official national chanteuse, remains the ultimate goodwill ambassador—and never more so than in this fully felt homage by a natural heiress to the borrowed glory. “La vie en rose” is far from finished.

In the first act an ever-enchanting young Piaf is discovered interacting with her superb four-man band, singing up her first storms on the streets of Montmartre and the steps to Sacre Coeur. The uncredited archival footage—Parisian postcard projections; unreleased photographs (including a montage of Edith’s many lovers); vintage newsreel excerpts) beautifully detail her life and times.

We see a spry and supple talent, capricious, temperamental and too busy for heartbreak. This apprentice Piaf is busy taking in everything around her in order to pour it all out again in chansons and torch ballads that still scorch and heal. Sung in French (except for the transoceanic “Autumn Leaves”), these early offerings include the sprightly “L’Accordeoniste,” the autobiographical “Elle frequentait la rue Pigalle,” the amorous suicide of “Les Amants d’un Jour,” and vocal souvenirs of Paris. It ends in a darkly jaunty circus medley that concludes with the Jacques Brel-like “You’re My Carousel.”

Chronicles of obscure dreamers in the shadows of the boulevards, these musical vignettes don’t dwell on the dandies and “grand horizontals” of the cafés-terrasses—these are the little lives that Piaf never forgot in her big career.

Catnip to a packed house of Piaf lovers, the second act displays the standards to more or less great effect. Along with the always entrancing “Les Feuilles Mortes” (sung for and with a humming audience), a very convincing Carrere channels the Sparrow with her peppy evocation of the man with the motorcycle, the percussive pageant of her loveladen “Padam…Padam,” the delirious waltz “La Foule,” the plea for passion “Mon Dieu,” and, of course, the poignant “Hymne a l’Amour,” one of many signature songs to an emotion she all but patented.

Of course, it’s de rigueur for Carrere to reinvent “La Vie en Rose,” a 1946 charmer that confers permanence on the most transient affection. We’re also blessed with the valedictory and crescendo-building “Non, je ne regrette rien,” and, as the obligatory encore, a sardonic and dizzying “Milord,” a bittersweet reflection on—and reminder to the title character—of all the girls that got away. (With the crowd happily clapping along and an audience “milord” brought on stage, it’s not the usual rueful-to-raging “Milord” that Piaf delivered—et je le regrette bien. But it ends the evening on literally high notes.)

Marred by technical glitches involving lighting miscues, this one-night-only could have used a second one. But for all those lost souls, including my own, who regret missing Piaf because they were born too late or otherwise engaged, Piaf! Le Spectacle delivers the ultimate French kiss.

photos by Jennifer Taylor, Rafal Klek and Alain Biguet

Piaf! The Show
worldwide tour
reviewed at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago
played October 8, 2017
for more tour dates and cities, visit Piaf! The Show

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