By Sarah Downs
Piaf! The Show, which played one night at the Town Hall, brought every French speaking New Yorker out to celebrate an iconic singer whose name is synonymous with cabaret. At 4’8” Piaf (née Édith Giovanna Gassion) was the “little sparrow” with the larger than life presence, who innovated a personal, dramatic style of ‘chanson.’ In her trademark unadorned black frocks, Piaf brought intense yet realistic drama to these romantic ballads. Her plaintive, slightly rough vocal color suited chanson narratives of love and loss, lending the music a kind of jaded vulnerability.
In this solo concert, Nathalie Lermitte personifies Edith Piaf without doing an impression or imitation. Rather, Lermitte has internalized the spirit of Piaf’s specialty, the chanson réaliste – music rooted in simple, real human emotion (which, of course, is never actually simple), and has made it her own.
As the concert opens, Lermitte sings upstage, moving slowly downstage to the framework of a café. A storytelling of sorts in subtle costume changes – a jaunty scarf, an apron here, a beret there – indicates passage of time. These are apparently the early years, when 15 year old Piaf began busking in the streets of Paris. Cabaret owner Louis Leplée discovered Édith Piaf singing in cafés at the age of 17. It was Leplée he who nicknamed her the “La Môme Piaf” (the waif sparrow) and gave her confidence onstage. As her career grew Piaf maintained her success, with hits in each decade.
Supported by excellent instrumentalists, Lermitte alternately plays the gamine as in the tunes like the cheeky “Milord” (Georges Moustaki/Marguerite Monnot), and pours her heart into torch songs like “La Vie En Rose” (for which Piaf herself had written the lyrics.) Lermitte also reaches directly out to the audience in lively songs like “Padam, Padam”, (Henri Contet/ Norbert Glanzberg) enjoining us to accompany her on the music’s carousel ride.
Sensitive piano (Phillipe Villa) and the tinkling, woody sound of xylophone (Benoît Pierron) locate us in the smoky cabarets of Paris, but it is the accordion (Fred Viale), alternately wistful and boisterous, that whisks us off to Mont Martre and la vie Bohème. I have never heard this seemingly humble instrument played with such virtuosic improvisation. It was almost intoxicating. Black and white images projected on the backdrop conjure vintage Paris — foggy nights, the Café de la Paix, the Pont Neuf, and of course, romance (good old Robert Doisneau and his images of stolen kisses.)
Lermitte sings in a powerful belt voice well suited to Piaf’s cabaret repertoire. She embraces the stage with her wide smile, expressive eyes and easy natural presence. It would have been helpful to the English speakers in the audience if the producer had provided English translations of the lyrics, whether in a printed program or maybe projected on the upstage theater screen or curtains. My French was sufficient to understand what was being sung, but I could see around me that some people were struggling. There is only so much that a singer, even one as expressive and interesting as Lermitte, can transmit without some literary assistance.
At the top of the concert’s second half rich blue lighting, with a single spotlight on Lermitte brings us forward in time as Piaf’s career blossomed in more expensive venues. The darkness added mystery while the spotlight of course, advertised a star. In elegant black velvet and lace cocktail dress, Lermitte sang a song of Bells to the accompaniment of her band players singing close harmony a capella. The stillness made an excellent effect.
In her final song, Lermitte returned to stage in a stunning sequined gown, and voila we were at one of Piaf’s international concerts. Leading the audience in the chorus of the classic “Je Ne Regrette Rien”, Lermitte drew audience and performer together, in a sensational high point.
As it celebrates Édith Piaf’s legacy, bringing the world of French cabaret to the theatrical stage, Piaf! The Show melds nostalgia with optimism. So much of what Piaf experienced was painful, from poverty through war’s privations to personal tragedy, and yet she continued to sing of faith in love. Piaf! The Show makes the choice not to belabor the tragedy, but to celebrate the joy. The music speaks for itself.
PIAF! THE SHOW (2023 world tour), conceived and directed by Gil Marsalla, starring Nathalie Lermitte. Musicians: Philippe Villa, piano; Frédéric Viale, accordion; Benoît Pierron, drums; Giliard Leitzke Lopes, double bass.
Presented at the Town Hall (123 West 43rd Street)Wednesday, January 25th at 7:30PM