Review: Cinnabar Theater rings in 2015 with the world premiere of “Edith Piaf: Beneath Paris Skies”—through January 18, 2015
The music, singing and scenes from Cinnabar Theater’s brassy new commission, “Édith Piaf: Beneath Paris Skies,” are so ingenious that it’s easy to imagine them invigorating Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (2011) or Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose” (2007) or even the outrageously countercultural “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975). Conceived and written by Valentina Osinski and Michael Van Why, this new musical had its world premiere on Saturday and is a gem will linger in your memory long after the last chanteuse sings.
“Beneath Paris Skies” brings together five wonderful performers and a talented five-piece band to take you on an enthralling trip to mid-century France through the eyes of Édith Piaf and her half-sister and life-long partner, Simone “Mômone” Berteaut. No joy ride, this is a fractured fairy tale that delves into the tempestuous “Little Sparrow’s” epically messy life. It presents her famed song repertoire with new lyric translations in English by Lauren Lundgren and in the original French. Fractured is a key theme of the production as the reckless, romantic, jaded and traditional sides of Piaf’s complex personality are sung by four different performers. Mezzo soprano Valentina Osinski, soprano Julia Hathaway, tenor Michael Van Why, and tenor Kevin Singer appear throughout the performance, each mining their juicy bits of Piaf for all they’re worth. Aside from playing parts of Piaf, the performers take on other roles too, such as those of Piaf’s many lovers. Suffice it to say, there’s a bed on stage and it’s frequently got more than two people in it. It’s complicated and quickly-paced but a lifetime has cleverly been packed into two hours… and it works. We’re given resonating personality slices and a chance to experience Piaf’s songs in dramatically different voices as spellbinding solos, duets and harmonies.
The chemistry between the singers is the glue that binds it all together. As the small ensemble shifts through various roles and costume changes–Pat Fitzgerald has dressed the singers in Piaf’s signature black–sparks fly and we can feel their pain, their joy and the palpable crush of the green monster, jealousy. It is pure pleasure to behold soprano Valentina Osinski in action. She sings with a smoldering intensity and her Piaf is tantalizing, pitiful, despicable and enviable. Osinski was honored last year with a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award. It’s a real treat to see her in Cinnabar’s intimate space, where you can almost feel the rustle of her movements. As Simone Berteaut, lovely Melissa Weaver delivers an equally beguiling performance. We see a master of facial expression at work as she anguishes over loosing years basking in the shadow of her famous but dysfunctional half-sister.
These are the same artists and creative team who crafted and appeared in Cinnabar’s sensational tribute Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” that rang in 2014. As far as winning creative partnerships go, Cinnabar has a great thing going by drawing on local talents who are also multitalented—conception and stage adaptation was done by Valentina Osinski (also sings Edith Piaf), Michael Van Why (also sings Piaf and various lovers) and Lauren Lundgren (also did lyric translations), with stage direction by Melissa Weaver (also plays Piaf’s half-sister) and music direction by Al Haas (also plays guitar) and Robert Lunceford (also plays accordion). Other musicians include Daniel Gianola-Norris (horn), Jan Martinelli (bass), and John Shebalin (drums).
Adding to the splendor are nostalgic black and white photo projections of Piaf and period Paris, designed by Wayne Hovey, that serve as a backdrop to the action on stage. And the intimate 99 seat theater itself has been transformed into a cozy French cabaret with small tables set-up between most of the seats so that you can get to know each other and properly enjoy your drinks along with the show.
Lauren Lundgren on translating Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” into singable English for Cinnabar:
“Throughout her life, Édith professed absolute faith in love. She thought of it as a remedy for pretty much everything, even though, or maybe because, it’s so easy to lose, so often painful, and so damnably hard to find. When “La Vie en Rose” came out, she was thirty and had had countless one-night stands, a fair amount of affairs, but had not yet met the love of her life. Was she wistful, ardent, anxious, ecstatic, naïve, or cynically commercial? With the help of outside research, I decided that she was all about fairy tale love, pure romance, without any dishes to wash or beds to make, with a definite patina of lust. Her songs are drenched in longing, and they are also dipped in a bit shit, pardon my French. That is what guided the translation.
“It became a quandary…how much to sanitize her vs. how much to reveal her. …There are times when it’s a sin to deviate one iota from the meaning of a phrase and other times when its a sin not to. And now I find myself having to inoculate you against the French that demanded a translation you’ have to pardon. Who knows. You may welcome a smattering of course language. … After an enormous struggle with the problem, I concluded that one can’t second guess an audience and I might as well come as close to the original as possible. (Extracted from Lundgren’s remarks entitled “Pardon My French” at Cinnabar’s Cinelounge on Saturday, January 4, 2015)
Details: There are 7 remaining performances of “Édith Piaf: Beneath Paris Skies” but several of these are sold out. Limited tickets are still available for Friday, Jan 16 (8 PM); Sat, Jan 17 (2 PM and 8 PM) and Sunday, Jan 18 (2 PM). Cinnabar Theater is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA, 94952. Buy tickets online here. For more information, visit cinnabartheater.org.
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