Culture | La vie en rose, from Montreal to Manila

French chanteuse’s songs transcend language barriers in Piaf: Love Conquers All

Edith Piaf was a French icon and international star consumed by love, substance abuse, and most notably, by music. Piaf was a meager 4’10”, but her distinctive voice possessed a strength that could move even the meatiest of meatheads. Her life and songs are said to be inseparable – one always directly affecting the other.

Piaf: Love Conquers All, presented by Tone Poet Productions and written by Canadian playwright Roger Peace, is about the life and times of Edith Piaf. The Brooklyn-based production has amassed momentous success worldwide; it was picked as “Top Ten of the Fringe” at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2005, and has been performed as far as the Philippines.

The play’s associate director Adam Blanshay, who graduated from McGill in 2004, is especially enthusiastic about returning to Montreal to share his work. “McGill was definitely an amazing ground for student theatre and I got unbelievable training there.”

Piaf: Love Conquers All focuses on the last decade of Piaf’s life, with flashbacks to her younger years. The intimate production portrays a sprightly character with a certain joie-de-vivre. Director/designer/producer Naomi Emmerson, who plays Edith Piaf, says her interpretation is based on “how [Piaf might] speak to you and tell you her story if you were in her living room and having a cocktail.” Blanshay adds, “We focus on the relationship between the romances that she had in her life and their influence on her music.”

Emmerson explains that the aesthetic of the production’s vintage set is inspired by Charles Kiffer – a French artist whose iconic art-deco posters advertised entertainers such as Piaf. She continues, “Nothing is in parallel lines. It’s off-kilter; it tries to give a sense that there’s an unbalance, an unsettledness to her story.”

To prepare for the part, Emmerson studied Piaf’s mannerisms, by watching her films and taped live performances. She will be performing the songs herself, supported by a live acoustic piano and an accordion. “It’s definitely Naomi [Emmerson]’s interpretation that impresses them the most,” says Blanshay. Emmerson adds, “I own about 12 biographies and two autobiographies. A lot of the things I take [as inspiration] are what Piaf says about herself – she’s very honest in her self-reflections.”

The play’s songs are performed in French, but the dialogue is in English. “People don’t really need to speak French to understand or to get the full gist of the performance,” Blanshay explains. “We’ve performed the same version in South Carolina. These songs are so resonant and descriptive, that no matter [the audience’s] level of French, they’ll get the full dramatic tone of what Piaf is saying.”

Get out of the McGill bubble for a night of cultural entertainment at the Centaur Theatre in the Old Port.

Piaf: Love Conquers All runs from January 28 – February 8, and there are many student discounts to take into account: there is a discounted price for students to all performances at $30, ten rush tickets will be available for purchase at the box office an hour before each performance for $24, and there are two pay-what-you-can performances – the 28 at 3 p.m., and February 4 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, please visit the Centaur Theatre web site: