Before Piaf, she was Édith Gassion

Mirava M. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - March 18, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Compared to many other world-famous artists today, the story of the legendary chanteuse from Paris remains speculative. Her life may have been tabloid fodder back during her heyday, but it never eclipsed her reputation as a soulful singer. Her records remain popular worldwide until now, and much loved even by those who find lyrics of her songs unintelligible.

That alone is so telling of her ability to hypnotize with her voice. Even from a thousand miles away, her soulful crooning exudes emotion only made possible by someone who has directly been through what she has. Her charms crossed oceans and language barriers and outlived a world war, even despite the endless turmoil threatening her career and life. And in 1978, one of her fans — playwright Pam Gems — decided that both the charming and not-so-charming facets of Piaf deserved resonance.

Gems’ production is far from the first attempt to immortalize Piaf. But it has certainly joined the many adaptations that have turned Piaf’s persona into a coveted, highly awarded one, almost at par with that of Marilyn Monroe. Actress Jane Lapotaire scooped up a Tony Award for her performance as Piaf in 1978, when the production premiered. Marion Cotillard won an Oscar after playing her in the critically lauded film La Vie en Rose (2007). And now, donning the iconic black dress is Pinky Amador, in the title role of Atlantis Productions’ own Piaf.

After the success of Aladdin last December, Atlantis Productions has turned its attention back to the adult crowd. Similar to its back-to-back productions of Nine and God of Carnage last year, Piaf is fraught with simpler backdrops, and much more grit than glitz. There is, once again, a “dramedy” of sorts going on between a small cast of characters, though naturally, Édith Piaf is without a doubt the star of this show.

The heavy focus on her star power serves as a constant reminder of the challenges the play is forced to tackle, at least in terms of production value. Because it is difficult to present a story about Piaf without a) Bringing Paris effectively to life, b) Showing what makes Piaf worthy of the compliments she receives throughout the play, and c) Encompassing her life — her whole, entire life — with the right pace and with an engaging tone. Fortunately, director Bobby Garcia has clearly chosen to emphasize the aforementioned points.

You will find no cliché backdrop of the Eiffel tower in Piaf, as it begins with Édith’s life long before she became a swan — or rather a sparrow, as that is what Piaf means. Although the accordion-esque tunes still abound, her story is one told through performances in rickety nightclubs, as well as the tales in between. The city is rife with poverty, prostitution and the gloom and doom of an impending world war. And yet, the simple stage is still unmistakably France as Filipino actors effortlessly blaze through both English and French dialogue. It’s not awkward like it could’ve been, and the pronunciation flows naturally and is seamless enough, at least for this reviewer (background: 12 units of French in college).

Pinky Amador definitely seems at home on stage while going through Édith Piaf’s discography effortlessly. Character-wise, it seems as if that is the easiest part of playing Piaf, because in a surprise move, the play does not focus on Piaf as much as it focuses on Gassion. Amador does not hold back in her immaculate evolution from playing a wide-eyed idealist who changes into a bitter, hardened old woman. But what is most amazing is the consistency in qualities that never leave despite decades of breakups, deaths, accidents and self-inflicted hardships. Throughout her life, Édith remains the same wisecracking, driven, curly-haired performer, who has men phasing in and out of her life as if passing through a revolving door. She is an unrepentant sex fiend, and one that owns her talent and flaunts it. Despite her loneliness and perpetual fixation on romance, her career remains her No. 1 priority, and more often than not, interaction and delightful chemistry with Toine (Ima Castro) receives just as much if not more attention than her romantic relationships.

Although her rise to fame is the point of the play, it is also very much eager to portray her series of downfalls. And it gets surprisingly ugly and utterly devoid of romanticism. Piaf changes for the worse, and at times, her behavior is inexcusable. She makes stupid choices and hurts others. The character worship is dialed back to zero during those times, and she is called out and forced to pay for her mistakes. It is refreshing to see her still human despite the worldwide fame; she occasionally buckles from the consequences of her choices. She messes up concerts, and her singing is treated not as God’s gift to mankind but as an ability that could easily disappear if not practiced and maintained.

The end result is an interesting juxtaposition of Piaf’s talents among Gassion’s many, many flaws. And although it’s not an entirely flattering light, her actions make sense for the most part. The highs and lows culminate, of course, and always lead into emotional song numbers. And at the end, like her, vous ne regrettez rien.

* * *

Piaf will continue to be performed at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza on March 22 (8 p.m.) and 23 (2 p.m. and 8 p.m.). For tickets, visit http://www.ticketworld.com.ph/ or call 891-9999.

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