To Piaf with ‘Love’ at Touchstone Theatre
Edith Piaf may not be a household name in the United States, but she is an icon in her native France and legendary throughout Europe.
Her life was as tumultuous as that of Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, and she has been compared to them.
Piaf was vilified for her many, often scandalous, love affairs and glorified for her singing. She was unique in the emotion she poured into her songs, and in the way they reflected her life.
Nathalie Mentha of the Italian Teatro Potlach theater company tells the story of Piaf’s life and sings her songs, accompanied by Touchstone Music Director Jason Hedrington, in “Edith Piaf: Hymn to Love,” March 5 - 8, Touchstone Theatre, Bethlehem. Pino Di Buduo, one of the founders of Teatro Potlach, is visiting Touchstone to direct the show.
Although the songs will be in French, the narrative of the story and the drama and feeling of the vocals is expected to make them leap over any language barriers. Mentha throws herself completely into each number, capturing the many different moods of Piaf’s work.
Following a recent rehearsal at Touchstone, Mentha says of Piaf, “She represents France, and the people of France who needed help and energy to survive World War II. She helped people to not feel alone.
“All over Europe, people remembered Paris in an epoch when they saw her, and younger people are curious about the songs.”
Piaf, born Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1915, was only four feet, 10 inches tall. Her life includes being abandoned by her mother after birth, malnourishment, growing up in a brothel, nearly losing her sight in childhood, losing a two-year-old daughter from an early marriage, many serious car accidents, and drug and alcohol abuse.
Piaf was even questioned as a suspect in the murder of Louis Leplee, the man who discovered her and gave her the nickname “The Little Sparrow.”
Mentha says that, though Piaf led a difficult life, she does not consider it as tragic:
“She loved pleasure. She was a joyous person who loved to laugh. She did not give off a sense of suffering. She represented energy, not depression. She had a charisma that was attractive to people.
“She lived her singing with her life. She did many typical French songs, but she wrote the most important ones herself.”
Piaf wrote nearly 100 songs, including the lyrics to “Hymn to Love.”
Piaf wrote the lyrics for her most well-known song, “La Vie En Rose,” which has been recorded in translated versions by singers as varied as Bing Crosby, Donna Summer and Grace Jones. In English, the title means “Life in Pink,” as in seeing life through rose-covered glasses.
Mentha has performed as Piaf for about 10 years in Europe, South America, India, China, and next year, in Malaysia.
The tribuite show, “Hymn to Love,” begins after Piaf has become famous and goes up to the end of her life. Piaf died in 1963 at 47 from liver failure.
Of the show, Mentha says, “It presents her very close friends, collaborators and lovers who helped her to become who she was.”
Mentha performed “The First 100 Years of Edith Piaf” in 2015 at Touchstone. “Hymn to Love” is a reworked version, with different songs and live, instead of recorded, accompaniment.
Teatro Potlach is based in Fara Sabina, Italy. “Potlach” in the troupe’s name is an American-Indian term for “an exchange of gifts.”
Touchstone members have visited the theater troupe’s annual FLIPT festival. Teatro Potlatch did a week-long residency at Touchstone, which included the Piaf presentation.
Piaf may be best-known in the United States via the 2007 French film, “La Vie En Rose.” For playing Piaf, Marion Cotillard won Best Actress Awards with an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe.
“Edith Piaf: Hymn to Love” 8 p.m. March 5, 6, 7; 2 p.m. March 8. Tickets: Touchstone Theatre box office, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem; touchstone.org; 610-867-1689. Group rates available. Touchstone offers a pay-what-you-will ticket at the door, as available, allowing walk-up patrons to name their ticket price.