Last year, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Edith Piaf’s death, French singer Patricia Kaas teamed up with film composer Abel Korzeniowski to create a multimedia spectacle, Kaas Chante Piaf, a program she debuted in New York last night at the Town Hall. Roughly twenty years since Kaas’ first appearance on that stage, she’s added nuance to the breathy, noir-tinged cabaret gravitas that’s been her signature over a career that spans the worlds of blues, jazz and artsy French pop. When Kaas first hit in the late 80s as a twenty-year-old with the voice of a woman twice her age, word on the street was that she was the closest thing to Piaf since Piaf herself. While the Little Sparrow was and remains Kaas’ most obvious influence (with plenty of Marlene Dietrich in there too), her voice is different: a gale-force contralto that she’s reined in a little over the years with dynamic results. Among New York singers, the Sometime Boys‘ Sarah Mucho is a good comparison.
Even if you’re a superstar in your home country, as Kaas is, the challenge of singing Piaf is a potential minefield. As the show opened, things did not look good, Kaas singing to a lavishly orchestrated backing track, video screen behind her. But her musicians – Johnny Dyke on piano, Nicolas Stevens on violin and Frederic Helbert on guitar, accordion and the mixing board – played tersely and meticulously kept up with the big symphonic swells emanating from the mixing desk, even if that occasionally subsumed what was being played live. And the result turned out to be a brave and individualistic series of reinventions of predominantly iconic songs. How did the lithely muscular, graceful Kaas decide to reimagine La vie en rose? She turned it into a dance piece, as the screen projected a series of geometric images that were not pink but purple. This show has several visual components, including a handful of brief dance sequences, and here she let her shirtless, stoic partner Ezio Schiavulli spin her upside down after she’d gone down into a tendon-busting crabwalk pose. And the sold-out, mostly French, mainly fortysomething crowd responded explosively.
There was no shortage of drama throughout the rest of the show, from the anguished to the comedic. An attempt to get a guys-versus-girls singalong going fell flat on its face (as it had the first time Kaas played here), so she seized the opportunity to ham it up. She opened with an imploring, rather harrowing take of Mon dieu, dating from 1960 when all the drugs were really starting to take their toll on Piaf, and closed with a cannonball version of Non, je ne regrette rien which was successful in generating a rousingly spontaneous singalong from pretty much everybody while obvious drug imagery played up on the screen. Along with the dancing, several costume changes and some thoughtful commentary from Kaas (whose English has gotten pretty good over the years), there were a couple of minutes’ worth of droll, bittersweet home video footage of Piaf herself.
Kaas took the angst of being haunted by a lingering melody to its logical, towering conclusion with Padam, padam, went into the darker corners of her voice for the world-weary heartbreak of Milord, got rather coy with C’est un gars, creepily theatrical with the noirish cabaret number Mon vieux Lucien, and raised the bustling La foule and the rather epic Hymne a l’amour to full-throttle crescendos. She also did an extremely welcome version of one of her own songs, D’Allemagne, reinvented as a slowly building, grittily intense, nocturnal piano-and-voice overture, a far cry from the moody bluster of the stadium-rock version on her massive double live album from back in the 90s. This was the final stop on Kaas’ US tour this year; she plays a stand at the Olympia in Paris on Sept 26-27 and is back there on Oct 10, with a lot of European and Russian touring around those dates. The full schedule is here