BWW Review: The Complex Female Relationship in PIAF/DIETRICH Lifts the Show to Stunning Emotional Heights
The names Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich still hold weight decades after their glory days, and Mirvish's production of PIAF/DIETRICH (directed by Gordon Greenberg) makes it easy to understand why. The sheer star power of the two titular women, embodied here by a powerhouse cast and set at major points in each one's personal lives is the kind of complicated, beautiful story of female relationships that the world needs now more than ever.
PIAF/DIETRICH starts at the end of its heroines' relationship and works its way back to the beginning. When we meet them in the early 1960s, both have just returned to their homelands - Marlene Dietrich (Jayne Lewis) to Germany, and Edith Piaf (Louise Pitre) to France - to perform concerts. It's the outcome of those shows that sets the narrative moving back to the point when Edith decides to bring her music to America, to fairly flat reception, and her meeting Marlene after the performance.
The two connect instantly despite their differences. Marlene is reserved, glamourous, and an expert in navigating New York's social scene; Edith, however, is rough around the edges, brazen, and unconfident. What follows is an emotional retelling of their relationship, spanning romance, friendship, and their eventual estrangement. The narrative is peppered with concerts, and the songs selected for these concerts - sometimes in English, sometimes in French - fit the storyline better than most jukebox musicals can manage.
Both Lewis and Pitre embody their characters so fully and with such care that it's easy to get lost in their dynamic (kudos to dialect coach Nancy Benjamin). Lewis is sophistication incarnate; the sly wink at the start of her musical numbers, how she struts across the stage gracefully without coming off as snobby, and the numerous gorgeous outfits (costume design by Louise Bourret, who deserves a special shout-out alongside stage manager Kevin Bowers for orchestrating the incredibly quick Las Vegas costume change) that she wears all add to the image of a golden-age diva she sells. Lewis's musical delivery in the first act seemed a bit reserved and lackluster, but a ballad early in act two boosted her for the remainder of the show.
Pitre is impeccable as Piaf. From her first moments on stage, its clear that Pitre gives herself over to Piaf's eccentricities and creative genius; from how she walks, the tone of her voice, right down to her body language while she performs. Of course, this is a show about these women and their ever-changing, often tumultuous relationship, so chemistry is important. It's also not a concern; it's never not fun to watch Lewis and Pitre laugh about being caught together by a room attendant, face off in a tiny kitchen, or attempt to repair their relationship on several occasions.
The supporting ensemble does well to add new faces into the background of Piaf and Dietrich's story, but they don't have enough time in any one role to make a lasting connection with the audience. A stage featuring two large staircases leading up to on-stage audience tables, a balcony, and a grand staircase with the women's names in lights hung above makes for a spectacle upon entry to the theatre, which has been decked out with dozens of posters from Piaf and Dietrich's works. Lighting (lighting design by Michael Walton) is incredibly powerful, with a fine line drawn between subtle shifts in tone to show-stopping extravaganzas of light and colour. In a scene where Piaf's lover Marcel Cerdan (W. Joseph Matheson) travels to America, the combination of light and sound (sound design by Michael Laird) creates an unforgettably haunting moment.
Just as Pitre and Lewis lose themselves in these roles, PIAF/DIETRICH is an examination of two female artists who spent their lives disappearing into and re-emerging from their art. Their choices and methods led them down different roads but this doesn't remove the importance of seeing two bisexual, successful, and loving women in a lifelong relationship, with all their flaws open and discussed. Women are often pitted against one another in some kind of superiority competition - in work, in school, in love, even just when walking down the street - so it's refreshing to see a complicated female relationship, founded on love, represented on stage.
PIAF/DIETRICH runs through December 8 at the CAA Theatre 651 Yonge St., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.mirvish.com/shows/piafdietrich
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann