Edith Piaf, the French chanteuse her countrymen lovingly dubbed "The Little Sparrow," died long before I had a chance to see her on stage. But I know her voice in my bones, as I imagine many of you do, too: that low-pitched, cigarette-and-whiskey-flavored sound with its profound vibrato, a voice that rose in triumph from the slums and ruins of old Europe to sing a driving refrain of survival and joy.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, one of my closest friends was a gay student by the name of David Mhyre, who was later claimed by the AIDS epidemic. I remember the painful, broken conversation -- twice delayed -- in which he finally told me of his sexual orientation: "Do you know what I am?" he asked. And then he suggested that I would probably stop being his friend now that I knew. I said that was absurd, but he continued, "We'll stay friends for a while, and then you won't want to see me anymore. That's how it happens."
In my own way, I felt as much an outsider as Dave did; I was a transplant from England with a funny accent who wore the wrong kind of socks and couldn't figure out the food, the slang or the way subjects like history and English were taught in an American classroom. Our friendship didn't end, and on happier nights, Dave and I would have a few drinks in one of the bars on Newark's main street, then head down the stone steps leading to the campus and along the main walkway to my dormitory, singing the refrain from Edith Piaf's "Milord" at the top of our lungs: "DA DA DA DA-duh-DAH; DA DA DA DA-duh-DAH...." Dave was a handsome guy, slim, with a slight cleft in his chin and impeccable posture, and it was a fine thing to see him strutting along that pathway with his beautiful blond head flung back and his throat open, singing out his difference and his defiance at the top of his voice.
That was Piaf for me. And that's exactly why Alex Ryer's synthetic, practiced, cruise-ship interpretation in Pure Piaf makes me crazy. The show is hugely miked, of course. Everything at the New Denver Civic is hugely miked -- which is odd, because the black-box theater housing Pure Piaf shouldn't be a hard space to fill with your voice. And, as if the unnecessary loudness isn't distraction enough, Ryer is in constant movement -- mike visible against her face -- turning little circles, gesturing, floating her mantilla-like shawl about her shoulders, walking out into the audience, at one point sinking to her knees and sobbing. Periodic stillness, allowing the emotion to be expressed in her eyes and voice -- these would have been far more effective.
Ryer has researched Piaf's biography, and the facts seem accurate, but the show is repetitive and loosely structured, the story told without irony or humor, and with a terrible self-pity. Still, Ryer has a decent singing voice, and the music -- despite the overmiking -- should be enough to carry the evening. Unhappily, it doesn't. Maybe Ryer is deliberately flattening her sound to honor Piaf's low, smoky notes -- but Piaf's voice came from deep within her body, and Ryer's emanates from her head, coming out sounding metallic and flat. She can't leave a song alone. She'll start singing one of the great ones -- "Milord," for example -- and then begin talking and talking in her unconvincing French accent until all life and integrity has been leached from the number.
When Ryer interacts with one of the impeccable musicians who back her, it feels as if she's handling a prop rather than dealing with a flesh-and-blood person. The same goes for her audience interactions. "Madame," she says to someone in the front row, "you look shocked." But when the woman responds, quite clearly, "I'm not shocked," Ryer doesn't acknowledge the comment and just goes on with her spiel.
Evoking the life and work of a world-famous performer is a challenging task for an actor. Mary Louise Lee accomplished it beautifully in Shadow Theatre Company's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill a few years back. She didn't mimic Billie Holiday's sound, but somehow married it to her own: The elegant, melodious voice we heard was Lee's, but every now and then there was a song -- or perhaps only a phrase or two -- that was unmistakably Holiday. And although that show involved speech as well as song, Lee allowed most of the evening's emotion to flow from the music rather than interrupt it.
At the end of Pure Piaf, after the death of the singer, Ryer emerges in a gleaming white, feather-trimmed gown and a '50s-style feathered hat. I'm not sure if she's meant to be a ghost or an angel, but I'm certain she's not a sparrow. Sparrows may be cute, but they're not showy or beautiful, and they neither sing nor soar. They're common, drab, raggedy birds that can peck a living from cracks and crevices, from pats of horse dung left in the street, thriving in a city's most inhospitable environments. It isn't pathos that we honor in sparrows; it's their toughness and ingenuity, their inextinguishable liveliness and their ability to survive.
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