La Môme Piaf

Swiss-born Actress Maria Bill Recreates the Iconic ‘Chanteuse’

“At moments she will raise both hands, palms up, and as if to say, ‘deliver me,’ only to clench them into a fist and pull them back into her soul.” | Photos: BUENOS DIAS

Photo: lickecho tistory

Edith Piaf

“At moments she will raise both hands, palms up, and as if to say, ‘deliver me,’ only to clench them into a fist and pull them back into her soul.” | Photos: BUENOS DIAS

On a black, minimalist set, a piano and accordion player are set up on stage right, standing across from a bed with a few belongings scattered on the floor. Front and center- the microphone. With a tousled head of brown hair and large, lively eyes, singer Maria Bill shuffles out onto the stage in a black, long-sleeved gown, the signature performance dress of the little sparrow, the legendary French singer Edith Piaf.

With effort, the aging chanteuse makes it to the microphone, holds tight to the stand and pours out the haunting strains of “Non, je ne regrette rien,” I regret nothing – in defiance of time, age and loss. At moments she will raise both hands, palms up, and as if to say, “deliver me,” only to clench them into a fist and pull them back into her soul.

Directed by Michael Schottenberg, Piaf – A Life in Scenes and Songs at Vienna’s Volkstheater was a revival of Maria Bill’s perennial favorite from the cabaret theater Wiener Metropol, opening a world tour. It is the story of Edith Piaf’s dramatic and troubled life, her men (Charles Aznavour, Paul Meurisse, Yves Montand and Theo Sarapo) and her music, with piano or  accordion both powerful and poignant, to, with 20 of her most famous chansons to.

The story continues taking us back to the high immigration district of Belleville, Paris, where Piaf was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in 1915, a time when both World Wars would come to ravage Europe. She made her living singing on the streets of Paris until1935 when a night club director “discovered” her, encouraged and schooled her on stage presence, after which she went on to produce her first two records in that same year.

Bill’s impersonation was nearly perfect – a volcano in constant eruption: the vivacious, tight-wound young French street girl with an outspoken character, cursing at her male companions one moment and the next, begging them not to leave her: “Leave all of you” she screams at her band members, “I don’t need you, pack your things and go!” Bitterly she rants on until the musicians reach the theater door, at which she softly and plaintively calls them back: “no, no, don’t go….” The slightly confused but willing men return, resuming their positions onstage.

With Bill’s superb performance, another sparrow takes wing, sharing with the astonishing Piaf of the screen, Marion Cotillard, who has brought the singer back to a wider world with in the 2008 film La Môme (La Vie en Rose) by Caesar Award nominee Olivier Dahan. This character and film won Cotillard the Oscar for Best Actress, recognizing her brilliant portrayal of the energy, timing and overall power of the great Piaf.

“I didn’t try to imitate her. I wanted to understand her inside. And there’s a very technical part–reading, watching, listening. I watched her a lot.”

However, to see the Swiss-born Maria Bill live, captivating the audience and completely dominating Vienna’s Volkstheater is perhaps a greater reward.  Bill lives the character and adds her own raspy style to Piaf’s now so familiar songs, compared at the time to the blues singers Bessy Smith or Billy Holiday.  Red lip stick, with morphine needle always near, the hand gestures of classic theater accompany her lyrics: the clutching of her fingers, fists pulling into her breast, hunching her shoulders against the emotional storm – all were typical for the singer, engrossed in song, as she belts out a high note.

Photo: lickecho tistory

“Death is the beginning of something” was Piaf’s reply to questions of mortality.  So as the lights darken and Bill’s hand drops off the side of the bed, we know the little sparrow, who had flown so high, burned her own wings in the end. Throughout Piaf’s life – and during Bills performance – the spotlight held the singer fast, illuminating her soul, and her pain. And both, in their own right and time, put on an extraordinary, unforgettable one-woman show.

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