Canada Review: PIAF/DIETRICH: A Legendary Affair

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

“Je ne regrette rien.” (Edith Piaf)

Like Edith Piaf, I had no regrets whatsoever in seeing this riveting musical story of passion and loyalty.  ‘Piaf/Dietrich’ offers captivating and jaw-dropping performances by Louise Pitre and Jayne Lewis as the famed chanteuses cabaret singers who form a loyal friendship and, for a brief while, became lovers while living in America.

This opening night production for me was flawless throughout in all elements from pacing right down to sound quality in hearing the lyrics to each of the songs. Thank you for that. Director Gordon Greenberg has carefully woven a compassionate vision of what he writes in the programme: “two divas without compromise, whose lives were as theatrical as their performances; however, each woman approached life and art in a very different way.” And this extraordinary production pulls out everything to tell a heartfelt story in a highly theatrical manner.

Walking into the auditorium of the CAA Theatre transports us right back to the post World War 2 era. Famed posters of Piaf and Dietrich can be found on both walls. Michael Gianfrancesco’s multi-layered set design harkens us back to the European cabaret settings. There is a stairway centre stage with the traditional theatre arch overhead. The magnificent sounding orchestra sits on the top level over the arch. Some audience members can sit on the stage and around the stage during the performance. Be mindful that you may be picked out during the performance. Two neon signs of PIAF and DIETRICH are gloriously lit when each lady steps forward to sing.

Michael Walton’s lighting design is razor-sharp taut in the solo musical numbers while creating the necessary ambiance for each scene. At times I wanted to watch how the lighting worked in relation to the musical number.  Edith Piaf felt naked when she sang because, at that point, the audience saw the real person. In a stark reminder of this fact when we see a completely crushed Edith sing, the lighting allows us to see right through Piaf’s costume right down to her underwear.  Very effective indeed. Louise Bourret’s costume designs have created quite a feast for the eyes in the costumes of these two divas along with the members of the ensemble.

One of the many reasons for you to see this production is the truly magnificent and commanding performances of Louise Pitre as Edith Piaf and Jayne Lewis as Marlene Dietrich. Their work is the kind of stuff all actors should see at any cost as it was a master class in acting. Both ladies are exquisitely riveting in their portrayal of two legendary entertainers who, I believe, did truly love each other and damn whatever came their way.

Ms. Pitre’s Edith is always about being true to her audiences no matter the cost to her health nor the long-term consequences. Pitre’s Edith naturally and seamlessly transitions between a vicious she-devil and then a loving companion who wants only the best for her friend. Here is a professional who is so focused and in the moment as Edith that Ms. Pitre uses her body to convey to us the gradual deterioration of Edith’s physical health. For example, what amazed me completely about Ms. Pitre’s Edith is the way she even uses her hands and fingers and hunched shoulders in the way Piaf sang.

Jayne Lewis’s Marlene Dietrich is a sultry, sumptuous, sexy, slinky and seductive goddess who always wanted to be in control of everything. From what I understand about the famous German artist, Dietrich used these feminine wiles to her advantage every chance she could. Like Ms. Pitre, Ms. Lewis is also focused and so believably in the moment that I honestly thought Marlene Dietrich stood right before me. Pay attention to the opening of the second act in the way Ms. Lewis is famously posed as the lights come up. The appreciative applause of the audience lasted a good fifteen seconds. Truly remarkable.

Supporting players Louise Camilleri, Rejean Cournoyer and W. Joseph Matheson offer sound performances of notable individuals who influenced the two central characters at one point. I was especially fond of Ms. Camilleri’s portrayal of singer/actress Lena Horne as the resemblance was remarkable. Rejean Cournoyer captured the flamboyancy of Noel Coward with fanfare.  W. Joseph Matheson (Ms. Pitre’s husband) is memorable as Edith’s future lover/fiancé Marcel Cerdan. Mr. Matheson’s moment as composer Burt Bacharach brought back wonderful memories of me as a child singing ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?’ in school.

FINAL COMMENTS: The audience was on its’ feet for the well-deserved standing ovation after the emotional conclusion of the story. I looked around at many of the guests seated next to me and all had smiles on their faces. They too were tremendously moved by a production. My guest and I looked at each other when the lights came up and we couldn’t speak for a few minutes as we couldn’t find the words immediately to describe how we felt what we had just seen.

This one’s a winner.  If there is a show you’d like to see in Toronto, this is one of them. Don’t miss it.

‘Piaf/Dietrich’ continues to December 8, 2019 at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto.  Visit www.mirvish.com to purchase tickets online or for further information. Telephone 1-416-872-1212.

Running time: approximately 2 hours with one intermission.

Written by Daniel Grobe Boymann & Thomas Kahry; Adapted by Erin Shields; From the Translation by Sam Madwar and based on a concept by David Winterberg;

Cast: Louise Pitre, Jayne Lewis, Louise Camilleri, Rejean Cournoyer, W. Joseph Matheson, Tracy Michaildis, Seana-Lee Wood

Photo of Jayne Lewis and Louise Pitre by Cylla von Tiedemann.