They don’t come any more outwardly distinct, yet legendarily lauded, than the beloved songbird Édith Piaf and the indomitable Hollywood glamour gal Marlene Dietrich. Which makes it all the more surprising when one learns that these two shared a powerful bond, about which the average devotee of one or both, likely didn’t know. And this in the days before the paparazzi was so omnipresent in the nooks and crannies, as well as refuse disposal, of the sizzling celebrities du jour. But a bond they did share and it ran deep. It also ran the gamut from sublime to searing and painful and somberly sad.
Piaf, France’s beloved sparrow, and Dietrich, product of German glam but really America’s adoptee as a Hollywood femme fatale came together in a New York bathroom, of all places, during Piaf’s wilted attempt at a mainstream comeback in the 1960s, in what was close to the final act of her stage show in this thing called life, sadly. At first written with European audiences in mind by Daniel Große Boymann and Thomas Kahry, even they are taken aback by the stunning adaptation for North American audiences by Erin Shields, from the translation by Sam Madwar, and tickled “rose” by it debuting at the Segal Centre AND in English for the first time. Audiences are stunned as well, and the buzz that everyone should see this theatrical – and musical – tour de force is spreading like a salty Dietrich sound byte.
On the surface, Piaf and Dietrich couldn’t be more diametrically opposite. Piaf was sweet, diminutive, and a distinctive shade of timid, coming alive with powerful aplomb only when belting out her traffic stopping, power-laden, vocal masterpieces. Dietrich was a doll, literally – dressed to the nines, sassy, superficially strong and with strongly erected walls to keep tenderness and vulnerability out. But behind the dressing room door, Piaf could be self-protective, tough and feisty, while Dietrich could be introspective and vulnerable. Perhaps they saw something in one another that told each one that they should know each other – and know each other they did, until Piaf’s 1963 untimely passing.
Canadian stage and screen icon Louise Pitre makes Piaf alive again at the Segal, with unabashed grace, gusto, a set of pipes the Scottish would admire, yet also a tinge of sadness, her inevitable descent virtually assured that would etch her in the minds of people everywhere as a tortured and tragic figure. Carly Street whoops it up as the demure and dazzling Dietrich, at times sharp, saucy, and downright hilarious; tough-as-nails and always ready to hammer anyone down to size.
Rounding out the cast playing a plethora of supporting female and male characters, respectively, is the versatile and multi-talented Lucinda Davis and Joe Matheson. Director Gordon Greenberg makes all the parts work in sync in absolute meticulous fashion, from unforgettable musical numbers to the interplay between spunky Sparrow Piaf and icy Blue Angel Dietrich that will leave a smile on your face and potentially a tear in your eye.
Musical director Jonathan Monro keeps the raucous rhythm alive, as a flawless live band plays both behind and in front of a transparent screen (perhaps a metaphor for a transparent glimpse into what made this pair of inimitable icons tick when they let their guard down in private?). The set design of Martin Ferland is nothing short of visually astounding, a perfect match for the sonically astounding performances of the quintessential Yin and Yang of the classy musical spectrum. Ferland brings the audience closer in unusual ways, even setting up cocktail tables and candles in front of the first row, essentially inviting all to get in on the monocular viewing of a friendship for the ages. Louise Bourret ensures that the costume design is à propos for the era, and costuming the majestic Marlene Dietrich is no small feat. Claude Accolas gets the lighting just right to assist us in effortlessly transporting into the cabaret world of yore.
Sound, sights and sass delight to no end as one gets a privileged glimpse into the souls of two irrepressible icons of screen and song. The Angel & the Sparrow is one not to be missed. As Piaf herself sang so powerfully, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” You will not either in going to see this landmark production.
The beat goes on until May 6th. Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944 .