Though they never met or performed together, Édith Piaf (1915-63) and Jacques Brel (1929-78), nearly fifteen years apart in age, both became legends of the modern “chanson française” and the 20th-century Parisian café-cabaret with their passionate songs of love and loss, sorrow and hope. In Piaf and Brel (The Impossible Concert), Canadian-born chanteuse Melanie Gall pays homage to them, in a cabaret-style show that intersperses her heartfelt renditions of their hits with biographical anecdotes about the people and events that inspired them, along with personal details of her own life that brought her to make this “impossible concert” possible. You’ll be glad that she did.
Performing on a bare stage set with only a microphone stand, Gall’s enthusiasm for “keeping the old music alive” is infectious, as she contextualizes each number with relevant background information. Her descriptions are exceedingly visual, evoking the historic situations in our mind’s eye, as she tells of Piaf’s childhood in the brothels of Paris and Brel’s tedious middle-class job in his father’s cardboard-box factory, of their many love affairs, their premature deaths (she died at 47 and he at 49), and of their mutual driving ambition to sing in Paris (“Who wouldn’t want to?” she asks).
Trained in opera, Gall’s vocal range, power, and control are astonishing, and her emotional expressiveness is affecting, as she delivers the famous songs in French and occasional English, wearing a cabaret-style black dress, lacy black stockings, red heels, and a headpiece accent (costume design by Wendy Gall), to the pre-recorded music tracks of Bennett Paster. She is ebullient in the lively “Milord” (popularized by Piaf) with which she opens the show, appropriately sarcastic in Brel’s sardonic “Moribond” (familiar to English-speaking audiences through Rod McKuen’s sentimentalized translation “Seasons in the Sun,” recorded Terry Jacks), and earthy in his raw and gritty song about sailors in the port of “Amsterdam.” Among Gall’s most moving and dramatic numbers are the signature works of the titular legends: Brel’s torch song “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (or “If You Go Away” in McKuen’s English version) and Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” and “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien,” for which she invites the audience to sing along with her.
Piaf and Brel (The Impossible Concert) is a beautiful tribute to its namesake musical icons, presented with mastery and feeling by one of their most personable and talented fans. It was a hit for Melanie Gall in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is a must-see in NYC’s Fringe Encore Series at SoHo Playhouse. Just don’t expect her to play the accordion–but she will tell you why!
Running Time: Approximately 65 minutes, without intermission.