Édith Piaf is alive and well and living in Perth. From the streets of Paris to the corner room of a building in Perth called the Guild Studio, the chansons of Piaf reverberate with passion and fervor in Stephen Lee’s new work, Madame Piaf. Her magnificent voice seems to have somehow escaped death, 51 years ago, and has travelled across the world through time and landed inside the body of Rhoda Lopez, who stars in this musical biography of the “Little Sparrow.”
How on earth does a performer manage to recreate the voice of a legend, especially one with such a distinct and seemingly inimitable sound as Piaf? It can only be a gift. It wouldn’t be something you could learn through method, but could only achieve through instinct, an uncannily good ear for nuance and style, and let’s not forget, a great deal of physical strength and stamina to manipulate all the muscle groups involved, to sing in a way that’s not your own. Then complicate matters by delivering lightning-fast lyrics in a foreign tongue, adding in authentic characterisation and mannerisms, and you can see how impossible the task becomes. But Lopez has done it.
Stephen Lee has sought also to bring authenticity to the story of Piaf’s life; some of the major dramatic works previously in existence about her (chiefly the 1978 play Piaf and the more recent biopic La Vie en Rose) have not given very accurate or balanced versions of the events. He’s provided an audio-visual accompaniment to the action on the tiny stage by way of projecting photographs of the people from Piaf’s life whom Lopez and her cast-mates are portraying or alluding to. He has written the story from the point of view of an ailing Piaf in decline; she reflects back over her humble beginnings and her rise to fame through interaction with Zalia Joi as Danielle Bonel (Piaf’s assistant and confidante), Emma Shaw as Christie Laume (one of Piaf’s protegees)/Simone Margantin (Piaf’s nurse), and David Bowyer, playing three of Piaf’s most significant men.
For me, one of the more interesting aspects of Piaf’s story that Lee has chosen to explore is her relationship to Mômone, her friend from the streets whom she carried with her through life like a dark twin. Although we don’t see Mômone on stage, we only see her in a single projected photograph, Piaf describes her as another version of herself, one who came from the same streets, the same mean roots, but who didn’t have the same luck and talent as she. And of course we learn of her traumatic loves and losses, her substance abuse, and her failing health. Lee's Piaf is a cheeky, stubborn, formidable Piaf who gains our sympathy through her unflinching dedication to her song and her audience.
Lee and company have also provided English surtitles to all the lyrics, for those who don’t speak French, or those whose French is not quite up to the speed of Piaf’s patter songs. Nikki Dagostino, “Australia’s youngest extremely fashionable and entertaining female Accordionist,” leads her trio (with Beth Sheldon on double bass and Jeffrey Harrold on guitar) through some of the Frenchy-est sounds you could ever hope for. You’d think yourself in some smokey underground cafe right in the heart of Paris, which is right where you want to be for this story.
But prepare yourself to be moved to tears by Lopez’s passion; her rendition of “Hymne à l'amour” is gloriously bittersweet and her “Non, je ne regrette rien” is supremely triumphant. Good thing someone brought tissues.