by Lynn on October 2, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the CAA Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Daniel Grobe Boymann and Thomas Kahry

Adapted by Erin Shields

From the translation by Sam Madwar

Based on a concept by David Winterberg

Directed by Gordon Greenberg

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Louise Bourret

Lighting by Michael Walton

Sound by Michael Laird

Cast: Louise Camilleri

Réjean Cournoyer

Jayne Lewis

W. Joseph Matheson

Louise Pitre

A compelling look at what made these women great in their own right and friends.

The Story. The show first started in Germany written by Daniel Boymann and Thomas Kahry and was known as Spatz and Engel (The Angel and the Sparrow in the programme but surely that’s wrong. Spatz is “Sparrow” and “Engel” is Angel, right?). I’m not going to correct it. We know that Edith Piaf was known as “The Little Sparrow” by everybody and for our purposes “The Angel” was Marlene Dietrich from the Blue Angel.

Then it was adapted by Erin Shields for a run in Montreal and titled The Sparrow and the Angel) and now it’s called Piaf/Dietrich.

The play covers the friendship of these two icons: Edith Piaf, the French chanteuse and Marlene Dietrich, the German movie star, singer and huge personality.  They met in New York when Piaf was making her debut there and not going over well with audiences. She sang in French and Americans didn’t understand her.

Piaf was visited back stage by Dietrich who took her under her wing, bolstered Piaf’s ego and fame by taking her out and being photographed with her. Dietrich also took her to bed as well. Dietrich was an equal opportunity lover, having men and women as her lovers. She gave Piaf advice, presents and confidence.  Dietrich told Piaf to sing her signature song, “La Vie En Rose” in English so that American’s would have some idea of what she was singing.  Piaf’s fame grew.

Both stars had rough patches in their trajectory to fame. Dietrich was booed at her gigs after the war perhaps because she was German and maybe the audiences equated her with the enemy even though Dietrich spent the war in the States and was anti-Hitler.  Piaf had problems with drugs and alcohol. Both had audiences who loved them.

The Production. Much of the show is presented as a cabaret in which both women perform their shows at various times, individually. Depending on who is singing, a large banner with the singer’s name up in lights is illuminated above the stage.

Set designer Michael Gianfrancesco has created the space close to the stage with small, round tables on which are little lights. Some audience members sit at these tables. Some sit on the stage.  The rest sit in the theatre auditorium. The walls of the theatre are full of posters of Piaf (Louise Pitre) and Dietrich (Jayne Lewis) announcing their various concerts, films and other engagements. Louise Bourret’s costumes also evoke the icon wearing them. Piaf is always dressed in a little black dress. Dietrich is always in a shimmering form-fitting gown or the chicest of fitted suits.

Piaf/Dietrich is full of their old standards.  As Piaf, Louise Pitre sings such standards as “Le Vie en Rose”, “L’accordéoniste” and “Non, je ne regrette rien.” Pitre invests every song with the passion, verve and emotion one would expect of Piaf. As almost all her songs are in French Pitre is expressive in indicating what the translation of a word might be. If the word is “eyes” in French she will indicate the eyes. It’s not demeaning to the audience, it’s how the character would indicate what she is talking about.

For Dietrich, Jayne Lewis sings: “Boys in the Backroom”, “Lili Marlene” and “Falling in Love Again” as examples of Dietrich’s standards in a sultry voice and a cool demeanour. As Dietrich, Jayne Lewis is absolutely glamourous, sophisticated and distant.

And there are scenes off stage when Dietrich and Piaf are living together, or at least Dietrich is washing Piaf’s floor—she was a clean freak was Ms Dietrich. The events in their lives are touched on.  Dietrich’s lovers; her estrangement from her daughter and how she meddled in her daughter’s life, her friendship with Noel Coward and Lena Horne are mentioned, as well as her devotion to Piaf. If anything seems true about Dietrich, it’s that she never really got close to anyone. She never let’s her guard down and looks like an ice princess, cool, unflappable and compelling. She might have shed a tear for Piaf when she died, but perhaps only because her experiment in creation is finished.

Early in the friendship, Piaf asks Dietrich why she is being so nice to her. That moment is cut short without an answer when room service arrives. Later in the friendship, Piaf asks again and this time Dietrich says that she wanted to help her reach her potential. I think it was more like Dietrich wanting to mould and shape and create a star. Since Dietrich seems to have no hold on her own daughter, Dietrich zeroes in on Piaf as a substitute for creation.

Emotion drove Piaf, whether it was in her songs or her personal life; her love for boxer Marcel Cerdan who died tragically in a plane crash as he was flying to be with Piaf set her off the deep end. A bad accident and an unhappy marriage lead her to be dependent on drugs and alcohol.

In Piaf/Dietrich Louise Pitre is hot passion as Edith Piaf and Jayne Lewis is cool and unattainable as Marlene Dietrich. Together they are mesmerizing.

I thought some of the script had holes in it. For example, at the beginning of the show Dietrich tells Piaf to sing “La Vie en Rose” in English so the Americans can know what she is singing because they don’t understand French. And yet for almost the rest of the show that doesn’t happen. Only towards the end does Piaf explain that the passion and meaning of the song is lost in English. Perhaps that comment might have been better placed or explained when the suggestion is initially made by Dietrich.

Because of the structure of the show, Often Dietrich would be upstage on a platform singing in her cabaret act and Piaf would be downstage singing in her cabaret act and  obviously not well—these are two separate events. For Dietrich there is a voice over of an angry audience telling her to go home. That also spills over into Piaf’s concert. This is confusing. Is Dietrich in France? Germany? Where? Are we to believe that Piaf’s audience booed her because of her health? Not very clear here.

Occasionally Gordon Greenberg’s direction is clunky. In the scene in Dietrich’s hotel room Greenberg has placed a drinks cart right in the line of sight of people sitting on the house left side of the theatre, blocking seeing what is happening in the bed behind it. Perhaps Mr. Greenberg can sit in every seat in the house to check that the audience can see every scene clearly.

However on the whole Piaf/Dietrich gives us an interesting glimpse into the lives of these two icons.

Produced by Mirvish Productions.

Opened: Sept. 26, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019 (held over until this date).

Running Time: 2 hours (approx.)

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1 Lynn Edwards October 27, 2019 at 12:53 pm

Saw this Oct 25 2019. Loved it. Loved it. I laughed and cried. I sat in suspense and was transported by the music. It really helped that I understood French and a little German. It was a privilege to be there. I hope everyone loves it as much as I. The set was amazing and sufficiently flexible to show domestic intimacy, great drama and wonderful music.