- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

One need look no further than the success of VH-1’s “Behind the Music” for confirmation of our continuing fascination with the dissipation of high-living musical celebrities. From Judy Garland and Bobby Darin to Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, we are alternately shocked and titillated by tales of musicians and their rapacious appetites for booze, drugs and lovers.

They were all amateurs compared to Edith Piaf, however. The transcendent French singer from the 1930s to the 1960s gave herself body and soul to her audiences, seemingly unable to hold anything back. She was the same way in life, gorging on men, liquor, drugs and money in a way that belied her frail image as “the little sparrow.”

This sparrow knew how to fly high — after all, her signature song was “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No, I Regret Nothing)” — and her drama-crammed life is the subject of Pam Gems’ lusty play, “Piaf.”

Miss Piaf was born in a gutter and raised in a brothel (and was not above turning a few tricks herself to make money) — and although at one time she was the highest paid female singer in the world, she never strayed too far from the low life.

Miss Piaf might have sung for kings and presidents (she counted Marlene Dietrich as one of her great friends) and lived at the Ritz (for their omelets), but all her life she remained most at home with rough trade and guttersnipes. Miss Piaf’s loyalty to her roots gives Miss Gems’ play its earthy, good-natured energy.

The playwright has Miss Piaf (played with a downright eerie vocal and physical resemblance by Helen Hedman) speak in a heavy-duty Cockney accent littered with slang and profanity. At first you might be confused, thinking that Miss Piaf was Eliza Doolittle’s long-lost sister who somehow ended up a hooker and street singer in Paris’s Pigalle district. Then it strikes you that this is a clever choice, since few American audiences could distinguish between a fancy and a low class French accent.

As a Cockney — granted, one who miraculously sings heart-tearing torch songs in perfect French — Miss Piaf’s character is understandable at first sight. And what a sight — she is nervy, bawdy, skinny and as crude as a stag party joke.

But then she opens her mouth to sing, her hands skittering across her torso like restless spiders. Out of her pours a voice, a plaintive warble that crawls into your soul and rakes across your emotions. Miss Hedman’s Piaf is unnerving, a force of nature that is all rawness and need.

“Piaf” whips us through Miss Piaf’s life — from her discovery on the Rue Troyan by the paternal nightclub owner Papa Leplee (Clinton Brandhagen), through her World War II service for the French Resistance, and on to her singing success, drug addiction, illnesses and increasingly dependent affairs with younger and younger men (the love of her life, married French boxer Marcel Cerdan, is also passionately depicted). A game supporting cast plays Miss Piaf’s various helpmates, ranging from her lovers (all played by James O. Dunn and Mr. Brandhagen) to her dignified assistants (Erin Kunkel and Zoe Anastassiou), who more than earned their pay putting up with their employer’s diva antics.

Just as Miss Piaf sang as if each number were her swan song, so she lived as if every day was her last.

Director Chris Hayes wisely concentrates the action in the nighttime world that was Miss Piaf’s life — nightclubs, bars, hotel suites, where the lighting is artificial, the bar stocked and the curtains perpetually drawn.

Alex Cooper’s dark nightclub set is both atmospheric and functional, serving as everything from a cheap bordello to the swanky clubs and theaters where Miss Piaf entertained her audiences. The street, however, is always present, represented by the rowdy character of Toine (the marvelous MaryBeth Wise, who can say more with a loll of her hips than most actresses can convey in an eight-page monologue), who pops up throughout the play to remind Miss Piaf — and the audience — of the good old bad days.

While there is boozing, drug-taking, prostitution and murder aplenty in “Piaf,” Miss Gems’ play is anything but a morbid ode to self-destructiveness. Rather, it has an obstinately cheerful air, a lively recklessness and light that captures Miss Piaf’s spirit.

The play overdoes it at times. In the first act, Miss Piaf gets smacked around so much you are relieved she doesn’t have a pet, lest she get whacked by her poodle for being late with the kibble. We get it already: She had a hard life.

But in the end, it’s not her struggles that stay with you. It may seem bizarre that a play about someone so addicted and tragic should be so ebullient and full of life, but “Piaf” — like the singer herself — glows with brassy light.


WHAT: “Piaf” by Pam Gems

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: Running in repertory Sundays through Saturdays with “Crave” and “No Man’s Land” at the Potomac Theatre Project. Through Aug. 10.



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