What's in a song? In one sung by the late Edith Piaf, heart and soul - to borrow another's song title. Pam Gems' "Piaf," which came to the Plymouth last night, resembles a protracted cabaret-act rehearsal (the actors even change clothes stage rear when they aren't performing). Its story, the lurid career of the Little Sparrow, might have been told in a song, but it would have had to be sung by Piaf.
"Piaf," a hodgepodge of a play bent on causing a sensation at every turn, but never quite succeeding in doing so, deals with the life and loves of the quintessential Parisian songstress in terms as British as gin-and-bitters. And while Jane Lapotaire, in the title part (in a frowsy black dress and ballet slippers throughout), may be said to portray a Cockney guttersnipe to perfection, her singing leaves one in doubt that she could attract a crowd of any size at a Dulwich social.
Perhaps the quaintness is intentional, with the language and joshing (a dig at Australians, for example) geared to British tastes. For the star is, after all, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which first introduced this work a few years back in its secondary Stratford playhouse, after which it played a variety of West End theaters.
Piaf, while never exactly a national favorite here, became an annual and increasingly popular fixture at a handsome Manhattan nightclub after her striking, though less than earthshaking, Broadway debut in 1947. And it is unlikely that anyone who sat through a performance by the spellbinding chanteuse - a small, bent woman who brought heartfelt conviction and beauty to every tawdry little street song she sang, could ever hope to recapture that magic.
It certainly isn't here in "Piaf," which consists of a series of graphic and outspoken little scenes played out on an almost bare stage, an instrumental trio in a central pit, and interspersed with songs from the Piaf repertoire, the latter sung both in French and English into a downstage mike she saunters, or later, limps to at intervals, thus separating scenes.
We first meet her as an impish youngster and street whore, singing on the pavement when she isn't selling her body standing up in doorways. Hired by a passing nightclub impresario who is shortly murdered under circumstances suggesting her involvement, she is soon headed for the big time.
The war comes and goes. Zip. During it, in addition to smuggling notes to and from French prisoners, she and her pal Toine, a full-time whore who goes on to become a provincial housewife and mother, entertain soldiers and sailors with an ecumenical enthusiasm. Zip. She meets and loses the fighter Marcel Cerdan, her great love, no sooner encountered than gone as we hear the sound of the plane crash that took his life. Zip. Her friend Marlene Dietrich, in nifty gray pants-suit and fedora, appears to offer career advice and quickly disappears. Zip. Piaf switches from booze to the needle, marries the young singer Theo Sarapo, and dies. The lights dim out to rise again for curtain calls and Lapotaire's singing, with the entire company humming in support, of "Les Trois Cloches." Over and out.
Now Lapotaire, a slight and stringy brunette with a wide, thin grin, is a versatile and winning clown, and we develop a fondness and pity for the character she plays. But despite the external details, it's not Piaf. And, anyway, all we ever really wanted to know about Piaf, a woman who could be as heartbreakingly simple offstage as on, was in her singing. She was each and every song she sang, and only then was she fulfilled.
Zoe Wanamaker, the one other member carried over from the British cast, is an entertaining Toine. Judith Ivey is impressive as Piaf's smartly-groomed secretary, a blend of compassion and distaste.
Howard Davies has staged the work resourcefully.
Lapotaire is obviously a gifted actress, but I'd much rather have seen her playing the Artful Dodger than the Little Sparrow.
There she is astrut the stage. Bird's-nest hair, hands on her hips, pelvis pushed forward in some vain gesture of vulnerable provocation. The face is gaunt, the body wiry, almost crippled, there is desperation here, and gallantry.
The voice is harsh and challenging, the eyes glitter, and the street-songs carefully burnished by commerce and transfigured by art, come alive. A funny, passionately attractive creature, a sparrow who was also a lark. Edith Piaf - unforgettable for those of us lucky enough to have seen her, but surely totally memorable for anyone who has ever heard her records, or, perhaps seen her face.
There she was, a bird of fortune, a child of our time. Crumpled by alcohol and drugs, living dangerously on sex, friendship and love, she became a sentimental symbol - in her lifetime - of poverty, oppression, love, courage and survival. And then she died. Which is always careless, especially when you are only 48.
Piaf, which opened last night at the Plymouth Theater, is a fictionalized documentary of the singer's life and loves. How fictionalized I have no idea - I knew she was the lover of that great middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan, but there my information virtually closes.
I just knew her as a performer, and saw her many times in Paris. She was always quite wonderful - a wraithlike urchin with damp-eyed glitter and a raspy voice. And quite incredible, and perfectly transformed, this is what you get in Jane Lapotaire's performance as Piaf at the Plymouth. This is one of the greatest theatrical thrills I have ever had.
The play by Pam Gems is virtually a series of vignettes, scenes from Piaf's life, decently selected, and made into a mosaic of what can only be called a losing survivor. It makes great, perhaps too much use, of Piaf's street background, her course language and behavior - and at one point we are, quite unnecessarily, treated to a theatricalized version of urination onstage that is silly and unbelievable. But Miss Gems is hardly a great writer and must obviously get her kicks from where they come.
But what the playwright has done - and this demands every credit in the world - is to provide a most magnificent vehicle for an actress. The skillful, indeed subtle, combination of the Piaf songs (the musical direction and orchestral arrangements are by Michael Dansicker) and the scenes from Piaf's gutter origins and poverty death, makes up an enthralling evening.
The staging is by Howard Davies, who directed it in its original incarnation and development with the Royal Shakespeare Company first in Stratford-on-Avon and later in London. It is brisk and intelligent. It has the right pace and the right tone.
Not all of the acting is particularly distinguished - although one notices the special skills of Robert Christian and Kenneth Welsh, even if the lady presumably playing Marlene Dietrich (an impossible role, admittedly) should be sued by Marlene Dietrich.
But really only two parts matter - Zoe Wanamaker playing Toine, Piaf's streetwalker confidante, and, of course, Miss Lapotaire. The decision had been made to translate Piaf's Parisian argot into cockney English - although when she sings she uses either French or an Anglo-French accent. This, reasonable enough in England, makes little sense in the United States - perhaps the accent should have been the Bronx - and, in any case, only Miss Wanamaker and Miss Lapotaire, both from the Royal Shakespeare Company, can handle the accents required.
Miss Wanamaker's Toine is a perfect delight, her acidulately askew accent precisely poised, her look of sensible desperation covered up with makeup impeccably maintained, and her goodness of heart demonstrated with a most pleasing restraint. Obviously Piaf has the flashy role, but Miss Wanamaker's companion piece must not be neglected.
So what can one say of Miss Lapotaire - short of throwing every superlative in the book at her?
Somehow, by some alchemy, she has actually made herself look like Piaf - not perhaps so much in person but in attitude. Her voice is hardly like Piaf's - there is no attempt at impersonation for Lapotaire is clearly her own woman - but what emerges is the same effect. It is remarkable, but much more than that it is quite simply a stupendous acting performance, one to be cherished for a lifetime.
Jane Lapotaire, the star of ''Piaf,'' doesn't look exactly like the legendary French singer and certainly doesn't sound like her. But I don't think anyone is going to mind too much. In Pam Gems's play, which arrived at the Plymouth by way of London last night, Miss Lapotaire does just what great actresses are supposed to do. With utter directness, not artifice, she creates the illusion of a full and complex life. Miss Lapotaire's performance burns with such heartstopping intensity that one never questions her right to stand in for the ''little sparrow,'' who died at age 47 in 1963; one embraces her instantly and totally. While it is far more difficult to embrace Mrs. Gems's rather frail play, I guess we can't have everything. Let's be thankful for Miss Lapotaire.
In Act I, when Piaf is rising from her miserable gutter childhood to cafe fame and fortune, this actress is the survival instinct incarnate. Wearing the singer's trademark black frock, her bangs bouncing off her plucked eyebrows, she darts about like a human alley cat. As she recalls her mother's desertion and her own tragic, teenage pregnancy, her smudge of a face brims over with tears - only to regather itself, with quicksilver speed, into a street urchin's grin. This Piaf just doesn't have time to feel sorry for herself if she's to keep going - and she doesn't have time for social niceties, either. Soon she's urinating in public and making hasty love to a man while simultaneously rifling through her purse. As enacted by Miss Lapotaire, such incidents aren't vulgar - they're the crazy excitement of life lived on the razor's edge.
The actress is more impressive still in Act II. By now Piaf is on her middle-aged slide through loneliness, car crashes, alcoholism, morphine addiction, bankruptcy and cancer. Miss Lapotaire still shows us the tough girl inside - especially when she explodes in booze-sotted laughter - but she's fast becoming the cronish, dying Piaf. Hobbling to the microphone to sing, she's as grotesque as a Toulouse-Lautrec caricature; her hands, once thrust proudly upwards or held at her hips, are gnarled, feeble fists. When Piaf's behavior becomes monstrous, Miss Lapotaire refuses to vilify or sentimentalize her. After a junkie's fit - a terrifying paroxysm of shivers and vomiting that sends her slithering about the floor - she bounces back up again, almost cheerily, to await her next punishment.
This, perhaps, is the essence of Piaf: She could absorb unfathomable amounts of pain and not only keep going, but give her suffering back to the audience in the form of gut-wrenching art. Mrs. Gems, like her star, deserves credit for capturing this central, perhaps inexplicable mystery of Piaf's magic, and she deserves credit, too, for the play's corrosive language. By translating her heroine's Parisian whorehouse patois into accessible Cockney, the playwright has recreated the verbal brutality of Piaf's existence.
Still, a torrent of rough language alone cannot camouflage the fact that ''Piaf'' often obeys the dramatic cliches of rags-to-riches-to-rags showbiz sagas. Like an old movie biography, Mrs. Gems's play unfolds in snippets in which minor characters (almost 30 of them) whip by to deliver information (''War has been declared!'') or to act out, in absurd shorthand, famous events in the subject's life. As written here, Piaf's various men are often indistinguishable ciphers, whether they be her managers, lovers or one-night stands. If that's the playwright's point, she's fudged the facts to fit. Many of the characters appear to be broad composites; we wait in vain for such lively Piaf proteges as Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour to play their roles in her story.
Instead of raising substantive issues about Piaf, the evening's cartoonish archetypes call the playwright's craft into question. If we only meet Piaf's greatest love, the boxer Marcel Cerdan (Robert Christian), for two inconsequential minutes, how are we to care when the heroine mourns over his death repeatedly for the rest of the evening? Why does the playwright create a cameo for Marlene Dietrich (Jean Smart) without bothering to illuminate her relationship with the heroine? These sketchy people just grease the narrative skids and kill too much time. Singly, they may be innocuous, but collectively they become a dead weight around the play's neck.
Mrs. Gems also relies on that tired device of following most of Piaf's heartbreaks with songs that comment directly on the action. This might work if the songs were Piaf's best, but the ones here are generally lesser-known numbers that seem intended to minimize invidious comparisons between Miss Lapotaire's voice and her character's. While the actress sings with Piaf-style theatricality, a feeling of sameness sets in. When she finally does launch into a standard near the end, the audience is so grateful it applauds - but the music trails off into a new dramatic crisis.
Howard Davies, the evening's inventive director, tries gamely to make Mrs. Gems's slight fragments look weighty. He uses a bare, platformed stage and Beverly Emmons's fine lighting (dominated by a huge neon fixture) to give the show a stylized, Brechtian look. But episodic writing is not necessarily Brechtian, and Mrs. Gems's political point of view is grafted on rather than woven into the play. When, late in Act II, Piaf starts railing against the greedy exploiters who ''all want a bloody slice'' out of her, her sudden radicalized consciousness looks like last-ditch message-mongering. Up until that point, the play's evidence has suggested that Piaf's true worst enemy is herself.
Given the limitations of the writing, the supporting cast is good. The vibrant Zoe Wanamaker, in the one full-blooded subsidiary role of Piaf's best friend, is better than that: She does a wonderful job of aging from a bright-eyed, sassy whore into a dim, respectable matron. But it would be silly to pretend that there's a ''Piaf'' without Jane Lapotaire. Maybe this actress can't turn Mrs. Gems's script into a play, but she does the next best thing: She becomes an electrifying show all by herself.