"Edith Piaf Onstage" an emotional triumph
Leslie Fitzwater pulled a bunny out of a hat, then she cut someone from the audience in half with a giant power saw and finally, she made a snarling tiger disappear into thin air.
None of that is true, but the kind of magic Fitzwater performed is even more amazing.
She took an audience of several hundred people, sang songs to them in a language very few of them understood, and made them choke up and shiver on the edge of tears as she milked every last drop of emotion out of an adoring crowd.
It was Fitzwater's one-woman show "Edith Piaf Onstage" that opened at the Skylight Music Theatre this weekend.
To say that it is an evening of magic doesn't come close to doing it justice.
Piaf's story is still well known, 50 years after her death. She rose from a street urchin to become one of the most famous French singers in the world. Her music seemed to come from a dark place deep inside her soul where sadness and melancholy drove everything else out.
She loved, she lied, she lived and she died, all in the glare of a public spotlight that turned her traditional simple black dress into a shroud that made secrets remain secret.
Fitzwater wrote this show with music arranged by Paula Foley Tillen. Tillen and three wonderful musicians, Tom Knack on accordion, Tom McGirr on bass and Mike Lorenz on percussion provide a understated accompaniment to Fitzwater. This show is an expansion of the version Fitzwater performed in the tiny Skylight Studio theater. People loved the intimacy of that production and worried that would be missed on the big stage of the Cabot Theatre.
Well, not to worry. The big stage best symbolized the big world in which Piaf lived and the arches and columns made Fitzwater seem even frailer and tinier than she truly is.
The first act of this play sets us up by marching us through the early part of Piaf's life and career. With French-accented English, Fitzwater has written text bridges that take us out of one song and into another. The songs are in French, but there seems to be no need to turn them into English.
It is in the triumphant second act that Fitzwater sheds any vestige of a contemporary woman and artfully climbs the hill that leads us into the depths of Piaf's soul.
She opens with a haunting version of the Johnny Mercer rendition of "Autumn Leaves." Sung in English while reclining on a divan, I moved forward on my seat as the feeling of something special spread over the theater.
Fitzwater talked about the great love of her life, the married champion boxer Marcel Cerdan. She was in New York when she asked him to join her, but his plane crashed on the way and he died. It was 1949.
Piaf then sings the haunting "Mon Dieu" a plaintive cry for her lover. In part, she sings:
"My God! My God! My God!
Even if I'm wrong,
Leave him to me
For a little while...
Even if I'm wrong,
Leave him to me
It is that kind of sorrow and pain that infused Piaf's music and made her such a treasure that now, after five decades, we still listen to, and marvel at, her music.
Fitzwater allows us all to understand how precious and fleeting is the flame that Piaf lit and how we can best savor what she left us by opening our hearts to the suffering that drove this Parisian waif.
And to do that in a theater in Milwaukee on a cold January night is truly an act of magic.
"Edith Piaf Onstage" runs through February 10th. Information can be obtained by going to skylightmusictheatre.org.
The Cabot Theatre only fits 275 people. To say she performed to "several hundred" is a bit of an over statement. Especially since none of the shows sold out. This site could really use an editor to fact check some of these articles. Especially Dave's.
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