Thursday, March 21, 2019

Review: 'Piaf: The Legend' at The Crazy Coqs, 20 March 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Edith Piaf lived an interesting life. The daughter of an acrobat and a cafe singer, she was abandoned at birth and raised in a brothel. Learning her trade singing on the streets of Paris, she was plucked from obscurity and became one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century. But even with fame and wealth, sadness was never far from the singer famously dubbed 'The Little Sparrow'.

Her life is fascinating and her songs are beautiful, which explains why it's been such fertile ground for drama, with Piaf being the subject of multiple biopic films, plays and books over the years. Now, with Piaf: The Legend, New Zealand singer Mandy Meadows presents a classy evening of chansons at Crazy Coqs, accompanied by an authentically Parisian sounding band.

As Meadows acknowledges early on, the diminutive French singer is quite at odds with her: a tall, blonde New Zealander. But despite their physical differences, when Meadows sings she captures something of the distinct Piaf aural experience. I'm no musicologist, but I've always loved the way Piaf poured so much emotional resonance into her songs. In every recording, you hear her not just singing a song but performing it, emphasising words and phrases until they're practically creaking with pathos.

Meadows has an admirable set of pipes and manages to capture this elusive quality without sounding like a mere impersonation. The litmus test of any Piaf tribute show has got to be the iconic Non, je ne regrette rien. Meadows absolutely nails this - you get the impression that it's as much as pleasure for her to perform as it is for us to hear it. 

Interspersed with the songs are a potted biopic of her life, with Meadows giving her take on what it meant to be Edith Piaf. The most effective sequence is about her doomed love with boxer Marcel Cerdan, one of France's most highly esteemed sporting heroes. Their love story ended with tragedy when his plane crashed on his way to visit her, and Meadows delivers this with a flair and skill that make the following songs that much more effective.

That said, this is a rather uncritical take on Piaf's life. Meadows resurrects the largely debunked and apocryphal tale of Piaf aiding prisoners of war during the Nazi Occupation of France. It's a rousing tale in which she craftily uses her fame and ingenuity to forge passports and save the lives of about a hundred French fighters. It's also almost certainly a post-occupation PR exercise concocted to fend off the accusations that she passively collaborated with the Nazis - having performed shows in clubs reserved for German officers.

I don't necessarily mind a hagiography, but I think it makes for a far more interesting story if you show how Piaf wasn't a perfect moral actor and that there are aspects of her life that should be criticised. But then I suppose this is Piaf: The Legend rather than Piaf: The Woman. 

Whatever your opinion on that, you can't deny Meadows' vocal talents and the way she breathes life and vitality into these classic songs. I believe the show is going on tour later this year, so if it rolls into your town prepare yourself for a smart and stylish night, all borne on the breath of a seriously talented singer.

This review was conducted via a live stream of the performance from Crazy Coqs.

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