LONDON – Playing legendary French singer Edith Piaf seems to bring out the best in performers. Following Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning turn in the film “La Vie en Rose” comes Argentine pocket rocket Elena Roger in a new production of Pam Gems’ musical drama “Piaf” at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
Roger was the toast of the West End two years ago in the title role of the hit revival of “Evita” and she brings that charismatic star power to the role of the Little Sparrow of Paris. Barely five-feet tall but with a voice as delicate or as large as she wishes it to be, Roger brings Piaf to life unforgettably.
The play was first presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1981 and went on to Broadway where Britain’s Jean Lapotaire won the Tony Award as best actress. Playwright Gems has shortened its length to 95 minutes and the result is a hurried account of the too-short life of the self-destructive waif with the glorious voice.
On the bare stage, Piaf is seen first at her final performance and then in a clamorous sequence well staged by director Jamie Lloyd she is whisked back to her discovery on the streets of the French capital.
Roger acts as well as she sings so the early scenes show convincingly Piaf’s growth from awkward child to cocky young woman and later cynical veteran performer. She never loses the vulgarity into which she was born and that she wears as a badge of pride.
Through World War Two, when she consorted with the occupying Germans but helped the resistance, to the indifferent 1950s, Piaf survives but her ambition is always undone by her wanton ways and taste in inappropriate younger men and cheap drugs.
Roger conveys it all beautifully and sings the fabled songs matching her remarkable vibrato to the familiar sound of Piaf. Supporting characters are given short shrift although Katherine Kingsley stands out as a tall and vital Marlene Dietrich and Phillip Brown (pictured with Roger) combines brawn and vulnerability as her boxer lover.
Venue: Donmar Warehouse (running through Sept. 20); Cast: Elena Roger, Shane Attwooll, Michael Hadley, Katherine Kingsley, Steve John Shepherd, Luke Evans, Leon Lopez, Phillip Browne, Stuart Neal; Playwright: Pam Gems; Director: Jamie Lloyd; Scenic Designer: Soutra Gilmour; Lighting designer: Neil Austin; Sound designer: Christopher Shutt.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.