NO REGRETS - a tribute to Edith Piaf
DBS Arts Centre
5th May 2011
A Review by Hawk Liu
What's an Edith Piaf's music cabaret show doing in The Mad Scene review section you may wonder. I had seen the 2007 movie on her life, and after coming out of this show last night, I'd say the life of Piaf deserved an operatic treatment. Hossan Leong, as the narrator, gave us her life story, interwoven with at least 24 Piaf songs by the cast. There was never a dull moment in Hossan's very lively narration style. It was serious, poignant and funny throughout and the script writing certainly worked well, bringing out the most essential and interesting aspects of her dramatic life story.
Arriving in the auditorium, I was greeted by a 4-man music set (piano, drums, syns, double-bass) on stage and I was surrounded by the audience of French-speaking Caucasians. I felt like I was in 'Little Paris" and a little fearful that Hossan would be rattling off in French the whole time as I knew that he was fluent in French. Thankfully for me, he spoke almost exclusively in English. The songs were mostly delivered in French by the largely non-French speaking cast and I was certainly impressed with the rather verbose songs they all had to sing. Some songs were sung in English and they did lose the essensce of 'Frenchness' for me and some of the other people I spoke to. But as a justification, I was then told Piaf had sung many of her songs in English when she became an international star. So, the songs being given in English gave me a good idea of her art in English as well as in French, and in my opinion, a good decision.
Piaf's most famous song, La vie en rose, given in both English and French, began the show after Hossan's short narrative start. The singers came on by turns and one gets a palette of the voices right from then. They were all wonderful voices. They all sung as if they meant every word and I would have believed them all if only I understood French. The emphatic manner of singing for many of the songs represented very well Piaf's singing style. You would always feel that she had something important to sing in each song. There were the dramatic songs as well as the soft ballads, all delivered to good measure by all the singers. My favourite voice of the night was Angela's attractive tone and range which she put to good use in many of her big solos. Robin's tone was also likeable and showed a good expressive range. Hilde had the reliable voice which was consistent throughout and Denise showed her commitment to everything she sang. Hossan had only a few duets and was totally enjoyable to listen to. The singers sounded well together in the harmony numbers. However, the sound balance could be better when they were doing backups to soloists. Their individual voices stood out too much. I reckon giving them harmony material might do better for them as backup singers.
Talking about balance, I was certainly pleased that the band was sensitive to being accompaniment elements to the singers and not stand out too much. The danger of having a drum set in a small band is the balance. Under the watchful eye of Elaine Chan (music direction form the piano), it was a delight to hear sensitive playing from all. I must make mention that the synthesizer player doubled as the solo violin, and it was lovely playing. Halfway through the concert, I realised how many of Piaf's songs were in 3/4 time and the incessantly 'oom pah pah' from the snare drum was tiring on the ears. Other than that complaint, it was very sensitive drum work throughout. The only song which was totally off balance for me was 'Black trousers and motorcycle boots'. That heavy metal of a song (was that really a Piaf song??) had a really loud metal guitar going and I swore I couldn't hear any of the lyrics except for 'Black trousers and motorcycle boots' in the chorus! Nonethesless, I was happy to hear an otherwise sensitive band playing and it helps to have good musicians behind the instruments.
The ending was poignant, with the cast singing as a duet to Piaf's own vocal on 'La vie en rose'. I came away knowing Piaf's life a little more and shared her joys and sorrow, and her strong drive for life and for realising her dreams in life.