Anne Carrere Reinvents Edith Piaf Classics and Rarities with Flair and Imagination in Midtown This Week
In her lavish, colorful, poignant tribute Piaf: The Show – currently running through April 21 at 7:30 PM at the French Institute/Alliance Française at 55 E 59th St. – French singer Anne Carrere absolutely gets what the iconic little sparrow was all about. On one hand, Carrere has assimilated an astonishing amount of Piaf’s performance style, extending well beyond vocals to costumes, stage patter and even her hand gestures.
There’s a moment during the angst-ridden ballad La Foule where the narrator is dancing. Last night, while Carrere sang the final verse, a vintage 1950s video of Piaf singing it played over the back of the stage. Synched to a split-second, the song’s originator and re-interpreter each swayed without a partner in their arms, sixty years apart, absolutely alone in the crowd. The effect packed a wallop.
Yet for all the verisimilitude, this isn’t mimicry. Carrere can hold those low notes with any other Piaf interpreter, but her voice is a little higher. Serendipitously, for those who didn’t grow up speaking French, her diction is much clearer than Piaf’s rapidfire 1930s Parisian slang. That helps enormously during the early part of the show, which follows Piaf’s early years singing the torrential lyrics of her hardscrabble street urchin tales in the streets of Montmartre and in sleazy Pigalle boîtes.
The imaginative, playful new arrangements of the songs hold true to lyrical content. Carrere doesn’t try to make garage rock out of Jezebel, like the Lyres did – instead, she reinvents it as third-generation, klezmer-inflected Vegas noir. She singe Autumn Leaves in competent English. And the sad tale of Mon Legionnaire, infused with Philippe Villa’s bittersweetly glittering, neoromantic piano, left no doubt as to the fateful consequences of one country stirring up trouble in another’s desert.
The choice of songs will satisfy longtime Piaf fans, and also serves as a solid introduction to the legendary chanteuse’s career. Obviously, the program includes La Vie en Rose, and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and Milord: each of them are more stark and spare than you would expect, which enhances the lyrical effect, whether resolute and indomitable, hazy and lovestruck or bittersweet.
The early material is choice: hardcore Piaf fans will not be disappointed. Not to spoil anything, but you get the expected – an absolutely defiant take of the workingwoman’s anthem Je M’en Fous Pas Mal and a wistful C’est un Gars – along with less frequently performed numbers, from a Waitsian interpretation of La Java de Cézigue to a deliciously phantasmagorical version of Bravo Pour le Clown.
Carrere’s four-piece backing band are fantastic, creating a backdrop that is by turns lush or intimate, depending on context – there’s never a moment where the lavish orchestration of so many of the originals is missed. Drummer Laurent Sarrien colors several of the songs with pointillistic vibraphone. Bassist and musical director Daniel Fabricant stays lowdown and in the pocket, with a deadpan camaraderie that sets up a couple of Carrere punchlines. And accordionist Guy Guiliano’s vast, plaintive washes and occasional stormy cascades are as breathtaking as Carrere’s presence.
Gil Marsalla’s direction is inventive and full of surprises. He keeps Carrere on the move nonstop throughout the first half of the program, leaving no doubt as to how hard Piaf had to work in her early days. Band members play along with the vaudevillian moments goodnaturedly; there are costume changes and several droll instances where the fourth wall comes down. The video montages are insightful, packed with rare footage of Piaf offstage with the many, many members of her circle. You will eventually be asked to sing along: there will be supertitles to guide you.