The set of Piaf: Love Conquers All, designed by actress-singer-director Naomi Emmerson, is surreal. The legendary singer's hotel room is rendered in stiff, flat, white panels, with the furniture painted on in black lines. It looks like a black-ink sketch on a giant piece of white paper. Here and there, a real, three-dimensional prop painted an intense pinkish-red—an umbrella or a bunch of roses—breaks the illusion. This is all perfectly appropriate for a play about Piaf (Parisian slang for "sparrow"). For the woman who sang "La Vie en Rose," life was flat, except for rare roseate splashes of love. In Roger Peace's script, the dream of love gives the destitute girl who becomes Edith Piaf a reason to live, and sing, but also makes her vulnerable to debilitating despair. The multitalented Emmerson acts Piaf's dizzy highs and devastating lows with all the passion necessary, eschewing melodrama for true pathos, horror, and ecstasy.
A second actress-musician, Stephanie Layton, plays an array of Piaf's lovers, mentors, and associates, of both genders. Layton's metamorphosis into the elderly Parisian nightclub impresario Papa is especially impressive. Wisely, Peace chooses not to have Layton, or anyone else, portray Marcel Cerdon, Piaf's beloved muse. Only Piaf can see him, and only her singing can bring him to life.
The best reason to see Piaf is the bilingual Emmerson's gorgeous singing of a number of Piaf classics, in French. These include "Milord," "Sous le Ciel de Paris," "Je Ne Regrette Rien," and, of course, "La Vie en Rose." Emmerson hauntingly recaptures Piaf's full-bodied vibrato but makes the songs fresh and powerful. It is through the carefully ordered repertoire that she tells the story of Piaf's emotional journey.
The show enjoyed several successful runs in Emmerson's native Canada. We New Yorkers should be honored that Piaf has chosen to pay us a visit.