note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey
Kate Sullivan is carving out a career for herself with biographies of the world's greatest singers. Last season she wowed the critics as Lotte Lenya and last week she opened at The Boston Playwrights' Theatre as Edith Piaf.
An enterprising cabaret act might intersperse biographical material between songs, but Sullivan has crafted a memory play --- on the idea of Luce's Emily Dickinson monologue "The Belle of Amherst". Sullivan ties life events to Piaf's songs, thereby giving them double resonance. The songs which were full of emotion to start with --- and that emotion was usually suffering --- now pulse with dramatic meaning. When Piaf learns to her horror that her child is dead, Sullivan follows it up with the mournful "Feuilles Mortes" (Dying Leaves): "I'll miss you most of all when autumn leaves start to fall". Most of the songs are in French, but Sullivan's diction is so clear and her acting so expressive you need not understand the language to get it.
Sullivan shares the stage with accordionist Roberto Cassan. She has him sit center stage as the focal point of Piaf's life, for it was the music which lifted her out of despair --- And Piaf had plenty to despair about. Sullivan manages to capture the desperation just beneath the surface....which is what made Piaf's performances so powerful.
Sullivan works over a dozen of Piaf's most beloved songs into the performance, with Cassan arching the melody and underscoring the gorgeous phrasing with crescendos of relentless marching notes. In Cassan's supple hands the accordion becomes a soaring orchestra.
Sullivan manoeuvres from the defiant "Milord" to the sorrowful "Les Trios Cloches" (which we Americans recognize as the '50s ballad "All The Chapel Bells Were Ringing"), all with a sweet, sad intensity which goes to the heart of Piaf. Sullivan doesn't impersonate "the little sparrow" as much as she invokes the essence of her struggle over adversity. She delivers "La Vie en Rose" in a whisper, almost in tears ... and every great actress knows the best way to move an audience to tears is to hold them back. It worked. Of course she ends the show with Piaf's triumphant "Non, Je Regrette Rien" which practically takes your breath away, knowing that her regrets led the singer to a premature death in her forties, when her tiny body succumbed to drugs and alcohol. No one embodies the melancholy French spirit better than Piaf, and no one does Piaf better than Sullivan