Chanteuse Gay Marshall‘s show last night at Pangea turned out to be as memorable and dynamic as Paris itself. It was also riotously funny – a Parisian might call it “marrant à chier.” In a little over an hour onstage, Marshall made good on her promise of a very individualistic musical tour of her adopted hometown, more imbued with knifes-edge intensity and current-day relevance than vaudevillian flair. Opening with a witheringly cynical Dave Frishberg number and closing with classic Piaf, she mined the depth and intensity of half a century’s worth of iconic and obscure chanson. She’s bringing this spectacle back to Pangea for a monthlong, weekly residency, repeating next Tuesday, Oct 25 and then consecutive Wednesdays, Nov 2 and 9 at 7 PM. Cover is $20 in this lowlit, intimate space, the scent of Mediterranean herbs wafting through the room. Most cabaret food sucks; this place is a refreshing exception to that rule.
To say that Marshall’s plushly crystalline, endlessly mutable mezzo-soprano vocals are disarmingly direct is an understatement. Being an actress, you would expect her to sing in character, yet there was zero affectation in these individuals’ angst, and longing, and devilish joe de vivre. Alternating between her own vivid English translations, and flawless French throughout each of the night’s numbers, she was joined by pianist Ian Herman, who switched seamlessly between wry barrelhouse theatrics, wistful blues, neoromantic lustre and the occasional blazing coda.
The audience was most transfixed by the darkest material. With its harrowing portrait of over-the-edge despair, tricky thematic shifts and vocal leaps and bounds, the night’s most challenging number was Stone, a roof-raiser from the obscure French musical Starmania. The night’s high point was not a whimsical love song but a harrowing triptych of Jacques Brel antiwar ballads. Taking inspiration from Marshall’s father-in-law, a World War II vet, the duo segued from the elegaic Les Grognards to the macabre tritones of La Colombe and finally the Vietnam-era Sons Of (Fils De), which reminds how the kids we send off to war have the same dreams, and nightmares, as those we don’t. Marshall was moved to the point of tears by that number, as well as when she recalled a moment busking on the banks of the Seine, where a homeless guy put money in her beret. Artifice is not a part of what she does, at least here.
Her between-song banter was priceless. She’d set up a whimsicallly minimalist building-block Paris atop the piano, using it as a springboard for wry recollections of her experiences as an American there. A vocal coach who couldn’t bear Marshall showing up in shorts with her skateboard; a Centre Pompidou exhibit exploring the meaning of nothingness (it happened; Marshall went); and the ne plus ultra vanity of people like the woman in Boris Vian’s playfully lyrical, satirical J’suis Snob.
As someone who’s lived in both Paris and New York, Marshall absolutely nailed the connection between the two cities. Much as we may love our respective stomping grounds, we’re equally cynical about them. Which is where her insight and unselfconscious depth really took centerstage, particularly on the more lighthearted numbers. She left out the third verse of Yves Montand’s Les Grand Boulevards because that was where the guy in the song whisks a girl into an alleyway: Marshall considered this “Trump-worthy,” and the audience roared. And she brought out the underlying unease in Piaf’s Marie la Francaise, a broodingly wistful take of Charles Aznavour’s La Bohème and a new translation of Autumn Leaves, reminding that its original title is Les Feuilles Mortes.
Fun fact: Marshall casually related that she used to bike up to the top of Montmartre. For anyone who’s ever walked that hill, especially after a few drinks, just thinking about that makes you want to jump over the fence and collapse in that meadow at the top. N’est-ce pas?