Crass and Grace

Cinnabar stages the life of Edith Piaf

‘The thing about Edith Piaf,” notes musician Al Haas, of the North Bay music trio Un Deux Trois, “is that her life was really the most interesting thing about her, even more interesting than her music.”

Haas, co-musical director of Cinnabar’s Theater’s upcoming Beneath Paris Skies: The Life of Edith Piaf, does not mean to devalue the worth of Edith Piaf’s musical legacy. The iconic artist’s songs, including the indelible “La Vie en Rose,” are among the most beloved French cabaret tunes of all time.

“But her life was very dramatic,” Haas continues. “To be literally born on the street, to be raised by prostitutes, with a father who was a tightrope walker, learning as a child to perform on the streets to make money—that’s just the beginning of a very colorful, very dramatic life.”

The world premiere show was written for Cinnabar by Michael Van Why, Valentina Osinski and Lauren Lundgren; Van Why and Osinski appeared in last year’s Jacques Brel Is Alice and Well and Living in Paris.

“They really wanted to do something similar but original, as a kick-off to the 2015 year,” says Robert Lunceford, co-musical director with Haas. “A lot of it was inspired by the book Piaf, by Edith Piaf’s half-sister Simone Berteaut. What’s interesting is that, in the show, Edith Piaf is played by four actors, two women and two men, who each play different pieces of Edith Piaf’s personality.”

The play alternates between scenes of Piaf’s life and performances of her best-known songs, with a few lesser-known tunes tossed in for good measure, including the obscure “The Woman in White,” a song about psychiatric nurses.

“It’s a very chaotic song,” laughs Lunceford.

“It’s like Edith Piaf on LSD, is what it is,” says Haas. “It’s fantastic!”

In many ways, the song is a perfect summation of Piaf’s life, which included a stint in an asylum.

“Her life is full of paradoxes,” acknowledges Haas. “Her life story is packed with pain, but there’s also sweetness and romance and beauty. There is crassness and crudity, but then there’s elegance and grace. Bit by bit, as her career rose from the streets, she found teachers and supporters who got a hold of her and taught her what she needed to know to be successful in ‘polite society.’ But she maintained her original crassness all the way through.”

“And for what it’s worth,” Lunceford laughs, “some of that crassness has ended up in the show.”

Sonoma County Library