PIAF/DIETRICH by Daniel Groe Boymann and Thomas Kahry, adapted by Erin Shields (Mirvish Productions). At the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge). Runs to January 5 (extended). $39-$129. mirvish.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
The main reason to see the musical Piaf/Dietrich is that it is a spectacular showcase for the talents of two of Canadas best-known stars of music theatre: Louise Pitre and Jayne Lewis.
The 2014 Viennese musical, which had its English-language premiere in Erin Shieldss adaptation in Montreal earlier this year, brings to light the little-known lifelong friendship that existed between Edith Piaf (1915-63) and Marlene Dietrich (1901-92).
The musical begins in 1960, when both singers are making comeback appearances and for unknown reasons loath each other. Dietrichs first concert in Germany after 30 years in the U.S. is heckled because she became a staunch supporter of the Allies against Nazi Germany. Piafs comeback concert after many years of physical decline due to alcohol and drugs ends in her collapse onstage.
The action then flashes back to a fictional view of the beginning of the singers relationship. The creators portray Dietrich first meeting Piaf in the U.S. and actively helping her win over American audiences. They depict Dietrich, a known bisexual, in a relationship with Piaf while also suggesting that Piaf is a daughter-substitute for Dietrich.
Pitres performance as Piaf is tremendous. Just as Piaf was renowned for putting her whole heart into her songs, so Pitre delivers Piafs songs with immeasurable emotion. From La Vie En Rose to Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, Pitre brings out the poignancy of each song as a triumph over Piafs increasing physical and mental suffering.
The character of Dietrich does not travel as great an emotional arc. Dietrichs aloof but taunting style, as the musical points out, is the polar opposite of Piafs emotionalism. Yet Lewis, with her seductive low voice, carries off this style with panache in such hits as Lili Marlene and Falling In Love Again. Its a pity the creators cut off Dietrichs song Just A Gigolo just when the singer has donned her iconic gender-smashing persona wearing top hat and tails. Its also a pity that the show strangely forgets about the feud between the two stars with which it began.
Designer Michael Gianfrancesco has transformed the entire auditorium of the CAA Theatre into an elegant, chandelier-lit nightclub, while director Gordon Greenberg has scenes played everywhere including amidst the cabaret seating that makes up the first two rows.
Filled as it is with the glorious singing of Pitre and Lewis, this is a vivid world youll certainly wish to return to.