It’s a new year, and as the North Bay theater community prepares to launch its first shows of 2015, Cinnabar Theater, in Petaluma, has already unveiled its newest show, and I mean new. “Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies” is an original commission, assembled from scratch for Cinnabar Theater, and though its creators are better known as performers than authors, I predict their clever, moving, raunchy, mysterious, funny, sad and seductive little musical theater piece will definitely have a life beyond Cinnabar, or should, if there is any justice in the world.
Written by Michael Van Why and Valenitna Osinski, with additional work by translator Lauren Lundgren, “Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies” is primarily a musical revue, blending many of the legendary French cabaret singer’s best-known songs with a number of obscure treasures from the far reaches of her repertoire. The songs are sensitively and cleverly blended with biographical vignette’s, adapted mainly from the memoir’s of Piaf’s sister Simone, played with world-weary panache by Melissa Weaver, who also directs the shopw with endlessly entertaining creativity. Simone appears as a kind of narrator/spirit guide through the show, commenting on but also interacting with Piaf. In the show’s most interesting artistic choice, Piaf is played by four different performers – two female, two male – each embodying a different aspect of Piaf’s character.
Osinski, for example, is Reckeless Piaf, while Van Why plays Jaded Piaf. Joining them are Julia Hathaway as Romantic Piaf, and Kevin Singer as Traditional Piaf.
Piaf’s life was a rough one, and the script does not shy away from that, with language and sexual references that are suitably appropriate to the kind of hard-drinking, hard-hitting life she rose from, and eventually fell back to. That the creators of the show chose not to turn Piaf into a singer-makes-good saint is one of the strengths of the show. Through the four aspects of Piaf’s personality, demonstrated through songs that chart her growth as a writer and as a defiant, love-struck, frail but also fearless human being, we get a better sense of who this woman was and what she achieved than any traditional biographical piece would do.
The music, performed by a tight stage band under the direction of Robert Lunceford and Al Haas, is sensational, all of it arranged by the directors, who had almost no printed sheet music to work with.
The first act is perhaps a bit too long, with a few too many songs crammed in, but the second act, which includes the stories of Piaf’s doomed love affair with a prizefighter and her stint in an asylum. Flies along on a wave of dramatic power, aided by some of the show’s strongest musical pieces, including Piaf’s signature song La Vie en Rose. That song, a sweet and melancholy description of love in all its openhearted vulnerability, has lasted for decades, pretty much defining Piaf’s commitment to the kind of love she dreamed of but never found. Here’s hoping that audiences will find “Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies,” and that it will have a life as rich and memorable as the woman who inspired it.
“Edith Piaf: Under Paris Skies” runs through January 18 at Cinnabar Theater. Cinnabartheater.org