It was a night for Francophiles. An official-looking man with a badge around his neck stood in the lobby before PIAF! THE SHOW. When asked a question, he smiled, shrugged apologetically and said in a strong French accent, “sorry, no English.”
Some translated lyrics in a souvenir booklet and a few comments from performer Anne Carrere were all the English to be found on Sunday night at the Athenaeum Theatre. A powerhouse singer, Carrere took the audience through the life of French chanteuse Edith Piaf via songs in her native tongue.
PIAF! THE SHOW is for those in the know
Carrere is such an electric performer, she could hold any stage in any language. She is crystal clear, disciplined and absolutely charming. But the show itself, written and directed by Gil Marsalla, best serves Piaf aficionadas and those who prefer an upbeat take on a gritty life. Carrere and her four accompanying musicians track Piaf’s 47 years with minimal biographical support to the songs.
Projected against the upstage wall, misty photos of Paris, plus newspaper headlines and headshots of Piaf’s love interests, stream almost continuously. Sometimes it’s evocative, sometimes it’s distracting, sometimes it’s confusing. Case in point: a series of photos of soldiers in sandy terrain. It’s easy enough to guess France’s colonial involvement in North Africa. But not everyone would understand that Piaf dedicated a recording of “Non, je ne regrette rien” to French Foreign Legion soldiers during the Algerian War.
ATHENAEUM THEATRE’s presentation stays on the sunny side
More confusing for this viewer was the dominant tone of the first half of the show. The word “perky” comes to mind. Piaf led a mostly tragic life that began literally singing for her supper on the streets of Paris. Of course that meant projecting joy to survive. But listen to her recordings and the pain beneath the perk comes through. Throughout Act I’s survey of Piaf’s early years, it feels like the brothel-raised “Little Sparrow” dwelled mostly on the sunny side. Carrare even changes from chic youthful slacks to a dress that suggests an Air France stewardess more than a rising nightclub star.
With Carrare looking and sounding so delighted by it all, where is the tormented soul grasping for happiness? Carrere gives us a taste of that in the second half of the show. Her renditions of Piaf’s greatest hits have more complexity. And Carrere’s interplay with men in the audience starts to convey just how much Piaf craved male approval.
Piaf’s signature song, “La Vie en Rose,” says it all: In the arms of a lover, life takes on a rosy hue. It’s like wearing rose-tinted glasses. PIAF! THE SHOW soars thanks to Anne Carrere’s considerable talents. But too often, it dispenses with the glasses and just gives us the rose.
For more information, go to the PIAF! THE SHOW WEBSITE.
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning, Emmy-nominated playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre.