Arts and Entertainment

Soulful sparrow: ‘The Songbird of Paris’ opens at the Island County Fairgrounds

Joni Takanikos portrays French icon Edith Piaf for one weekend in Langley. - Photo courtesy of Clementine Productions
Joni Takanikos portrays French icon Edith Piaf for one weekend in Langley.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Clementine Productions

She was a very small person with a very big voice and an even bigger heart.

The word that followed her throughout her life and which colored the particular expression of her music was “love.”

The great French chanteuse, Edith Piaf, will be portrayed by singer Joni Takanikos in “The Songbird of Paris, Edith Piaf,” a play by Martha Furey.

Hosted by Outcast Productions, “The Songbird of Paris” plays for one weekend on the island and opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11 at the Fine Arts Building at the Island County Fairgrounds in Langley.

“She is one of the most embodied singers I have seen,” Takanikos said of watching film clips of Piaf.

“She plants her feet and hips in a wide and sturdy stance before she begins, and as she performs her hands become a powerful, moving, minimalist painting. She seems like she is in a trance, and yet she invites you into it,” she said.

Piaf was born Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1915 in a poor part of Paris. Abandoned by her parents, she had to fend for herself from a young age.

While singing on the Champs-Elysees as a teenager, she was discovered by night-club owner and impresario Louis Leplée, who gave her the stage name of “La Mome Piaf,” which is colloquial for “The Little Sparrow.”

Despite the murder of Leplée which delayed her eventual rise to fame, Piaf would find another manager and go on to record hundreds of songs — 80 of which she composed — and become a cultural icon on the world stage.

Piaf is regarded as France’s greatest popular singer of all time. They called her “a volcano,” and described her voice as a constant eruption. She sang the songs that would define a genre such as “Mon Légionnaire,” “La Vie en Rose,” “L’Hymne à l’Amour,” “Milord” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Many of her fans felt Piaf’s performances did nothing less than capture the essence of the French soul.

She appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” eight times, at Carnegie Hall twice and often at the legendary Olympia Theater in Paris.

But her life was filled with trouble, pain and tragedy and, despite her great success, Piaf would die young at 47.

“Her life had great sorrow and struggle, but through music she achieved a transcendence you can hear in her voice,” Takanikos said.

“She gave you everything she had, totally opening her whole heart and soul on stage. I think that is why people who saw her perform were transformed by the experience,” Takanikos added.

In Furey’s one-act play, Takanikos depicts the singer’s journey from a tenacious busker on the streets of Paris to the beloved and famous performer she became.

Furey has been portraying famous artistic women herself in one-woman shows for more than 25 years. She knew that her former plays that described the lives of such lights as Isadora Duncan, Frida Kahlo and Alice B. Toklas would be complemented by the company of a play about Piaf.

After Takanikos joined her in Ireland last year while on a singing tour and where Furey lives part-time, the playwright realized she had found her Piaf, and that the dream of such a portrait could be realized.

“This was the year,” Furey said.

After the piece premieres in Langley, Furey and Takanikos, along with Max Cole-Takanikos who has a small part in the play, will embark on another tour of Ireland where “The Songbird of Paris” will be presented under the auspices of Furey’s production company, Clementine Productions.

Being mainly a singer-songwriter and a poet, Takanikos wasn’t sure about taking on the theatrical role.

“When Martha first proposed the idea of me playing Edith Piaf, I was flattered but did not think it possible,” Takanikos said.

But since delving into the effervescence of Piaf’s life, Takanikos has been inspired and fortified by the beauty and sheer defiance of Piaf’s voice.

“As a performer, I feel grateful to have the opportunity to study such greatness, and if I can keep some of Edith with me always, I will be better for it,” Takanikos said.

Takinikos is also spurred by Furey’s experience of writing about the lives of strong women. She said Furey has been a fearless performer herself and that bolsters her own resolve.

“In the end, it is really through my watching Martha bring these women to life, that allows me to take the risk of playing such a beloved singer as Edith Piaf,” Takanikos said.

“I would never try to imitate her, but I feel that by telling her stories and singing her songs, she will come alive in the moment through me.”

Furey said it seemed logical to write Cole-Takanikos in to the script as Eddy the stagehand when she heard he would be traveling with his mother to Ireland in December. (Clementine Productions has already booked three performances for the show in Ireland, with other engagements pending.)

“It also helped that at 20 years old he is a skilled actor,” Furey said.

“Writing Max into the play has really enriched the script and I have enjoyed working with both of them.”

Have Piaf, will travel.

Takanikos said touring the play in Ireland would not be possible without the patronage of certain

South Whidbey persons, who donated funds to the enterprise. It is a bare bones production, which makes it easily transportable.

This is a good thing, Takanikos said, because she wants to translate the story of Edith Piaf’s life and art to as many people as possible. It is music and a voice the world should know, she said.

Edith was, she said, the very embodiment of joie de vivre.

“Her life was short, but she held nothing back.”

“The Songbird of Paris” will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov. 12 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13 at the fairgrounds on Cascade Avenue in Langley. All tickets are $12 and are available at Eddy’s at 306 First St. in Langley. Call 321-3339 for more information.

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