Melanie Gall began her first Fringe performance of Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert with a disclaimer about her French – though she’d performed the show in countries across the world, she hadn’t done so yet in Quebec, and was concerned her pronunciation might be insulting. But she didn’t have to worry – the crowd gathered in the cool air conditioning of La Ministère loved her impassioned renditions, even giving her a standing ovation at the end of the show.
The ovation was well earned. Gall has five opera degrees, and it shows – she’s a flatly incredible singer, her belt as hard-hitting as her head voice is weightless. She doesn’t ever aim to mimic Piaf and Brel, but rather performs their songs in her own captivating style. Despite her training, Gall doesn’t have the distant air of a highly trained opera singer, but rather the warm and welcoming nature of a friend who just happens to have a knockout voice. She encouraged the audience to sing along throughout the show, enthusiastically pointing out crowd members who knew the words. And though she occasionally stumbled or forgot a word – Gall was running on very little sleep, as she repeatedly emphasized – the sheer force of her voice and personality were more than enough to compensate.
Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert is accurately advertised – this is a concert, not a musical play about the musical icons. Gall fills the gaps between songs with biographical sketches of the two titular figures, as well as stories of her own experiences discovering them and performing their works across the world, but the heart of the show is the songs. Gall hits all the typical biographical details for Piaf and Brel – the unlikely rise to fame, the copious lovers and loneliness that come with said fame – but doesn’t ever deeply explore why people loved them so much, or why they should be paired together.
I wanted to hear more about why Gall herself fell for Piaf and Brel – not just the circumstances of how she discovered them, but what it is that keeps her coming back to their work. She skirts around the fact that both were not easy people – Brel, in particular, seems like he was a bit of a nightmare – but there’s no serious attempt to grapple with their legacies. But then again, maybe in a concert it’s best to keep things light-hearted. If the purpose of these interludes is to give us all a pleasant minute to catch our breath before the next song begins, then they definitely do the trick.
Though it could benefit from live accompaniment, this a show that will charm Piaf and Brel experts as well as anyone who only sort-of knows the tune to “La Vie en Rose.” Gall is a skilled enough performer that the songs land with impact whether or not you’ve heard them before – and whether or not you can understand the French. This is also, of course, a testament to the songs themselves; though Gall doesn’t speak in-depth about her love for Piaf and Brel, the songs provide enough of an explanation on their own. Indeed, the crowd was clearly full of Piaf and Brel loyalists. And though it would have been a shame if everyone had sung over Gall the whole time, it was also a treat when the audience began “Je Ne Regrette Rien” in unison – like the concert itself, the moment was a testament to the impact of these two singers and their ability to bring people together.
“WHO IT’S FOR”
Music lovers, as well as anyone looking to hear some excellent singing and charming anecdotes about two of the 20th century’s most iconic singers.
Melanie Gall presents “Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert”
at the 29th St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival
Performances: June 9 – 15, 2019
Venue: 01 – Le Ministère
4521, Saint-Laurent, Montréal, H2T 1R2
Admission: $10 – 12 | Ages 12+
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from this year’s fest on our Fringe page!