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FRENCH PASSION (article first published : 1999-05-9)

Piaf, Brel and Aznavour Cast

There are three names that have made French musical history: Piaf, Brel and Aznavour.

Edith Piaf was a French cabaret singer born in Paris in 1915. She had a powerful voice and energy that belied her tiny frail frame, eventually pushing herself to the limit and becoming dependent on alcohol and morphine before she died in 1963. Among the many new artists she nurtured was a young Charles Aznavour.

Belgian-born Jacques Brel brought to his songs an unforgettable irony, sensitivity and soulfulness, becoming a major contributor to a style of music where the quality of the lyrics where vital and not incidental.

Three legends of French music. Two dead - Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel - and one alive. Born in 1924 and still going strong, Charles Aznavour’s looks have been likened to a `pickled walnut’ although somebody obviously thought him sufficiently becoming because a floribunda rose is named after him!

These three figures have one common characteristic – an overriding passion for life and love.

Piaf, Brel and Aznavour: It was a Good Time is the title of a show running in the Playhouse Cellar until mid-June. Produced by Eric Hutton and directed by David Lloyd-Jones, it brings a breath of sophisticated fresh air into a venue that has hosted a surfeit of madcap adult-panto fare over the last few years. (Still, if it brings in the customers, don’t knock it!)

Hopefully, the notoriously `difficult’ Durban audiences will recognise a quality production when it’s offered them and flock in their droves to see this tribute to Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour.

The show marks the return to the Durban theatre scene of popular actress/singer Janene van Pletsen whose luminous and sincere quality shines in numbers such as L’Accordé oniste. While I would like to see her facial expressions toned down a little for this small venue, her rendition of Brel’s If You Go Away and You Let Yourself Go by Aznavour were perfect for her dramatic talents.

The show also welcomes three new faces Phillipp Maier, Carole Trench and Anthony Stonier.

Anthony Stonier - a new face? In a way, yes, because he’s never performed on the Cellar stage without carpet fringing eyelashes, three layers of lipstick, female dress and high heel shoes before. It’s a great pleasure to see him as himself, proving that he has everything it takes to play it `straight’. In fact, while there is a hint of Aznavour in the dark hair and smouldering eyes, there’s a stronger resemblance to a young Alain Delon. The highlights of his performance were Brel’s Marike, Piaf’s Bravo and Aznavour’s What Makes a Man a Man. His signing number In Silence There’s Gold was beautifully handled and I admit I was moved to tears.

Carole Trench stepped in at short notice for Karen Wood for Sleeping Beauty, the last Cellar adult-panto, and played the last few weeks to great success. For a 24-year-old who wasn’t even born until at least 12 years after Piaf’s death, her rendering of the classic Je ne regret rien was pure Piaf, gutsy, emotional and passionate. This is a young singer with a maturity beyond her years who has an affinity with her material, particularly notable in Men in White.

Holding the whole show together is Phillipp Maier. Remember the name because if theatre producers have got their act together, you’re going to see a lot of this accomplished pianist. With a soulful profile that would upstage Chopin, he provided a highly sensitive and flexible accompaniment to the performers.

The lighting is sophisticated and atmospheric and Loshini Naidoo’s designs were simple and structured. No attempt is made to `dress’ the Cellar stage and, apart from the piano and a stool or two, there is nothing to deflect from the clarity and honesty of the lyrics and the music. Even the opening is without fanfare.– just clear silver notes on the piano leading to a flurry of cadenzas. And it’s an unmitigated joy to be able to hear the lyrics of a song and not be drowned out by backing tracks or an overpowering backing group.

Tickets for Tuesday to Saturday shows at R85 include a choice three-course meal and chef Antony Stacey has chosen as starters either traditional French onion soup or a blend of ham, egg and fresh herbs on a spinach base. The main course is either roast lamb in white wine with garlic and thyme or chicken breasts roasted in a pepper, olive and fresh herb mix and, to round off the meal, there are profiteroles with chocolate and apricot or a layered biscuit and caramel cake.

There are cocktail shows on Friday at R30 (no meal) and bonus shows on Sundays at R67,50 include a set menu. Vegetarians should identify themselves on arrival to take advantage of specially prepared dishes. Book through Computicket or phone 369-9444. Ticketweb bookings on www.ticketweb.co.za


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