Theaters love musicals with small casts: They save by paying fewer actors and make money in the ticket sales that musicals usually draw. I therefore have little doubt that Piaf: Love Conquers All will go on to bigger, brighter venues—after starting in the New York Fringe Festival, it’s already been invited to this FringeNYC Encore Series run. Nevertheless, the production lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.
Naomi Emmerson, who plays Piaf, possesses a remarkable voice that manages to tremble quite closely to Paris’s “Little Sparrow.” Despite this, and even with Emmerson’s flawless French, the songs and scenes that emerge between her and Stephanie Layton—who provides accompaniment and plays supporting roles—feel flat. Piaf’s tragic life (born destitute, pregnant at 19, only true love killed in a plane crash, herself dead at 47 due to drug addiction) create the rich dramatic ingredients for a fine French meal. Whipping up such tragedy, though not easy, can be done. And has been—Marion Cotillard in the 2007 film La Vie en Rose is riveting. Piaf: Love Conquers All remains faithful to the facts of the singer’s life, but ultimately doesn’t delve deeper; the facts feel Wikipedia-esque and the comic timing rather staccato. Though the “Little Sparrow” in Piaf flies, she does not soar to nouveau heights.