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Review: 'Spotlight on Edith Piaf'

To begin with, Pat O'Scannell bears no discernible likeness whatever to Edith Piaf.

"My physicality, my size, my ethnicity, everything about me is different," O'Scannell writes in her program notes for Camelot Theatre's "Spotlight on Edith Piaf," which opened Friday and runs through June 15.

But when O'Scannell begins to sing a song made famous by the French chanteuse, something happens. It's as if some invisible emanation takes her over, and you feel the spirit that made Piaf an icon around the world and especially in her homeland. Actually feel it in the room.

Part of it is that O'Scannell is simply a highly accomplished singer with a lovely voice. Part of it is the musicians accompanying her; Olof Soderback's accordion, Don Harriss's piano and Michael Vannice's clarinet and melodica combine to evoke the streets of Paris.

Part of it is the narration, written by Andi Slavin and delivered on-stage by Presila Quinby. You can't go wrong with this story. Piaf came from the streets and lived a life that was touched by both stardust and tragedy but was always the stuff of fiction.

Beneath all that, O'Scannell gets so far inside these often haunting songs that she seems to be living them. This is not an impression of Piaf. This is a singer of power and subtlety channeling the spirit of another.

At the end of songs such as "Sous La Ciel De Paris," "La Vagabond" and "Le Roi a Fait Batter Tambour," there was often a micro-second of silence before the stunned audience came back from Paris with a blink, found itself in a theater in Oregon and burst into applause.

Piaf, who was born Édith Gassion just before Christmas of 1915 in the Belleville section of Paris, either on the street or in a hospital — accounts vary — and would not be called Piaf (French slang for sparrow) until 20 years later, a reference to her diminutive size. Her mother was a cafe singer who abandoned her at birth, and she wound up being cared for by the whores at her grandmother's brothel.

At 14 she began performing on the streets with her father, an acrobat and street performer. At 15 she met Simone "Mômone" Berteaut, who would become her companion for most of her life, and together they sang on the streets of Paris.

Piaf was married at 16 and had a daughter at 17. She left her husband and took her baby, Marcelle. But when she returned to street singing, her husband took the child, who died of meningitis at age 2.

The hardscrabble facts of Piaf's life provide an ironic contrast to songs such as the romantic "Les Mots d'Amour" and the jaunty "C'Etait Un Jour De Fete." But O'Scannell can break your heart with a song such as "Les Trois Cloches," which those of a certain age may remember in an adaptation called "The Three Bells" by The Browns in 1959.

The songs and the narrative together trace Piaf's rise to stardom as she befriended, worked with or took as lovers men from filmmaker Jean Cocteau, singer Maurice Chevalier, poet Jacques Borgeart and actor Yves Montand, whom she discovered and with whom she became romantically linked.

While the narrative is succinct and informative, Quinby, who also directed, sometimes sings harmonies with O'Scannel and even leaves the narrator's podium to dance. While Quinby is a talented singer, this odd directorial decision deflects focus from O'Scannell as Piaf. Exacerbating the distraction, Quinby was clad in bright colors while the other performers were dressed in black.

The narration dismissively paints Piaf's litany of lovers as a sort of endearing weakness, as if the poor girl couldn't help falling in love at the drop of a chapeau, wink wink. It would be fascinating to know what Piaf herself, whose songs ran so heavily to love, loss and sorrow, would think of such a suggestion.

But there's no quibbling with the songs. O'Scannell's take on a song like "Hymne a l'Amour," which Piaf wrote after the death of the love of her life, the French boxer Marcel Cerdan, almost breaks your heart. Same with the moving "A Quoi Ca Sert l'Amour."

As Piaf gained fame and fortune, life didn't get easier. She was considered a traitor by some for performing for German soldiers in occupied France (she said she was working for the French Resistance). She was in a serious car crash, the injuries from which may have led to her problems with alcohol and morphine.

Piaf died of liver cancer at age 47. She has been the subject of several movies and plays, and her songs live on, popping up in films such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Inception," "Bull Durham" and "Madagascar 3."

And in this highly rewarding show, which O'Scannell first developed eight years ago for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Green Show. The program saves Piaf's best-known songs until last: "La Vie en Rose" and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." The last is a sort of summary of Piaf's take on her own life: "No, I regret nothing."

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Edith Piaf