EDITH PIAF was one of the world's first superstars, a World War II-era cabaret singer known for both her incredible talent and her propensity to swear or throw bottles at her audience. On Aug. 14, Savannah's Natasha Drena will perform as Piaf at the Lucas Theatre, though she doesn't plan on throwing any bottles.
The Edith Piaf Cabaret is part of the theater’s special summer series allowing audience members to sit up on stage with the performers. Only 125 tickets are available, so the performance feels intimate and more realistic.
Piaf, a French national, was widely regarded as an international star. Her most enduring song, 1945’s “La Vie en rose,” was used as the title song for a 2007 film starring Marion Cotillard as the troubled-but-passionate cabaret singer.
Drena will be joined onstage by Jared Hall and Richard Ochoa from Velvet Caravan, playing the violin and piano.
“We’re kind of mashing up the gypsy jazz with the cabaret,” says Drena. “It’s an interesting thing. Cabaret started, some people say in France, some say in Germany, but it was kind of like what you’d think of as a speakeasy here. Singing and dancing, in a seedier, maybe more underground environment. The acts could be completely off the wall.”
Piaf lived a troubled life, becoming a mother at 17 and getting her start as a street performer before being discovered by a nightclub producer. Her only daughter died at age 2 and her lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash.
Piaf herself passed away from liver cancer at the age of 47 after struggling with alcohol and morphine addictions following a car accident. Despite her struggles, Piaf’s songs were often autobiographical and channeled her pain into success.
“Her name alone would sell tickets,” Drena explains. “She’d sing Carnegie Hall and do symphonies, but she was a little street urchin. She was nuts.”
While Drena isn’t nearly as much of a street urchin as Piaf was— “I have a daughter and she has a daughter, and I sing, but that’s it!”—she’s played similar roles in musical theater, including Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow and Fantine in Les Miserables. She also sang Garland in a Lucas Cabaret earlier this summer.
Though in person she’s very happy and upbeat, Drena has come to enjoy being pigeonholed.
“I usually play leading lady-type roles, and I had a professor in college tell me that my gift was being able to be extremely vulnerable and to never lose that gift, because I look like a strong person,” she says. “It’s cool when you can show vulnerability. It’s good, it’s made me able to work.”
Drena herself has had an interesting life, though not nearly as traumatic as Piaf’s. She started singing at age 5 after taking over piano lessons from her disinterested sister, lived in France for two months, and is now raising two kids who seem likely to take after their mom.
“My 6-year-old is already singing,” Drena says. “We were out to brunch with people and they looked at me and said, ‘Is she singing an Edith Piaf song?’ And yeah, she’s singing ‘La Vie en rose.’ She has no idea who Justin Bieber is, which is my goal in life.”
It was Lucas Theatre director David Harris who brainstormed Natasha Drena’s transformation into Edith Piaf.
“I have always done Judy Garland, and Dave Harris was like, ‘She’s the French Judy Garland. Can you do her songs?’’ Drena recalls. “I said sure. He wanted me to do it with Ricardo and Jared because they do a very French-inspired jazz.”
The performance will duplicate Piaf’s speakeasy experience as closely as possible, but Drena says there are a few exceptions.
“Anything with a great English translation we’re going to do in English, but her big, big songs we’re going to do in French,” she explains.
“Then we’ll probably throw in ‘I Love Paris,’ anything that seems Parisian. ‘Moulin Rouge.’ Ricardo and Jared will do some instrumental gypsy jazz, and hopefully people will feel like they can get up and drink.”