Fitzwater magnificent as Edith Piaf

Leslie Fitzwater's one-woman show on the life and music of the legendary French chanteuse has become a landmark of Milwaukee musical theater.

By - Jan 27th, 2013 12:22 pm

Leslie Fitzwater as Edith Piaf. All photos by Mark Frohna for Skylight Music Theatre.

Leslie Fitzwater’s Edith Piaf Onstage will join the pantheon of legendary Milwaukee theater events. The one-woman show opened Friday at the Skylight Music Theatre’s Cabot Theatre, capping a 26-year journey from Bastille Days revue to a triumphant main-stage account of the celebrated French singer’s life.

Edith Piaf, a cultural icon of pre- and post-World War II France, rose to international stardom in the late 1940s and ’50s. Her rise from street urchin to acclaimed chanteuse, as well as her scandalous lifestyle and fragile health, have been documented in many plays and films. Fitzwater wrote and stars in the Skylight production, which tells Piaf’s story in well chosen songs and rueful reminiscence.

Piaf’s genius was her gift for storytelling in her songs and the raw emotion she was able to voice. In her most famous ballads, “La Vie en rose” and “Non, je ne regrette rien,” she conveyed universal feelings of love and loss.

Fitzwater embraces Piaf’s intensity and care in song selection but does not try to imitate her voice. Instead, she draws on her own powerful style to convey Piaf’s earthy, yet angelic essence. She conveys the world weary, yet still vibrant soul of the great singer with a slightly husky voice. Singing in fluent French and slightly accented English, Fitzwater inhabits this material and conveys the highs and lows of Piaf’s life with power and grace.

Set designer Rick Rasmussen transforms the Cabot stage into an intimate salon nightclub, with a raised
platform for the obligatory chaise lounge, and café table and two chairs downstage. A glittering crystal
chandelier above the grand piano and trio of musicians completes the effect.

Throughout the production, clever quotations by Piaf are projected on a huge gilded picture frame that serves as a backdrop. White lettering on black background suggests silent movie subtitles and enhances Fitzwater’s narrative with revealing glimpses into Piaf’s character.


Fitzwater, the band, and Rick Rasumussen’s set, in dramatic lighting by Holly Blomquist. Mark Frohna photo for the Skylight.

Music director Paula Foley Tillen wrote the superb arrangements. Her exquisite piano accompaniment is achingly right in “Comme Moi” and the dramatic “Hymn à l’amour” in the second act. Tom McGirr on bass and Mike Lorenz on drums and percussion provide able back-up. Accordionist Tom Knack brings the quintessential sound to almost every melody, from the carousel notes of “My Lost Melody” to the bittersweet lyrics of “La Foule” and the raucous “Padam Padam.”

The best art takes you out of your life. By the end of Edith Piaf Onstage, when Fitzwater sings “La Goualante du Pauvre Jean” (a familiar song, even if the title isn’t) and the poignant “La Vie en Rose,” she has taken us on a spledid journey to the streets of Paris and another time.

Edith Piaf Onstage runs through Feb. 10 in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center, 148 N. Broadway. For a full schedule of performances and to buy tickets online, visit the Skylight website or call the BTC box office, 414 291-7800.

Hey! Pay attention to Matthew Reddin. He knows what’s going on in Milwaukee’s 2013 theater season.

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