Piaf: Love Conquers All
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 12, 2007
Naomi Emmerson delivers a true tour de force performance in Piaf: Love Conquers All, a play with songs about the legendary French singer Edith Piaf. This show is filled with moments that showcase Emmerson's rich talent, but for me none was as arresting as our first glimpse of her in Act Two. Piaf's true love, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, has been killed in a plane crash and though years have passed, Piaf has not recovered: instead, she's drinking more than ever and now also turning to pills and other drugs. She's plagued by rheumatism as well. And, as a penance for his death, she has cut her hair. Emmerson moves slowly and deliberately onto the stage, with the familiar bobbed coiffure replacing the more youthful one she wore during Act One; the weight of Piaf's tortured spirit is palpable and painful. It's a remarkable transformation.
Especially because she's been so vibrant and sassy as the young Piaf; her portrayal of the singer's rise literally from the streets of Paris to the heights of cabaret and music hall throughout the world is as delightful as it is vigorous. Emmerson channels Piaf the lover, Piaf the mischief-maker, and most of all Piaf the singer: a woman who says she cannot live without singing, and that she cannot sing without love. The rags-to-riches saga, with its tragic coda of decline, feels almost cliche, but Emmerson's performance helps to make it feel fresh.
Of course, the key to Piaf is in her music, and Emmerson's performances of more than a dozen of the songs associated with Piaf form the high points of the show. The ones you'll expect are here: "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" and the gorgeous "La Vie En Rose"; for me, though, the most exciting pieces are the ones I was less familiar with, like "L'accordeoniste," a powerfully emotional piece that Emmerson uses here to show Piaf's maturity as a chanteuse; "Milord," a delightful piece with music by Marguerite Monnot (who also wrote Irma la Douce); and "Mon Dieu," which comes at the play's potent climax.
Joining Emmerson on stage is the versatile Stephanie Layton, who accompanies the star on piano and accordion and also portrays everyone else needed to tell the story, from Louis Leplée, the impresario who first recognized Edith's talent (and gave her the name "Piaf," which means "sparrow") to various friends and supporters who tried to help Piaf through her troubled last years.
The whimsical, stylish set, depicting a dressing room and an off-kilter hotel suite—so emblematic of Piaf's way of living!—is also designed by Emmerson (inspired by Charles Kiffer's illustration of Piaf in her only play, Cocteau's Le Bel Indifferent). Emmerson is also the director of Piaf: Love Conquers All—truly a theatrical force to be reckoned with, and now that she has left her native Montreal, one we certainly look forward to seeing more of on stage here in New York.