Raquel Bitton | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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RAQUEL BITTON

Edith Gassion (1915-'63) sang for spare change on the streets of Paris in the 1920s and '30s, until a cabaret owner gave her a gig and a stage name--Piaf, slang for "sparrow"--and started her down a path that would lead to international stardom in the years after World War II. Today Piaf isn't widely appreciated in America; because she sang in French, contemporary audiences don't know the bulk of her repertoire. San Francisco-based chanteuse Raquel Bitton is determined to change all that, and to that end she's put together her current show, Edith Piaf...Her Story...Her Songs. Piaf's huge, throbbing voice--developed when she had to project over the noise of traffic--was startling coming from her diminutive frame, and her eloquent gestures and aura of indomitability made it seem even bigger. Unlike Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, who usually reinvented standards to fit their personas, Piaf worked closely with her songwriters--among them Raymond Asso, Henri Contet, Georges Moustaki, Jacques Prevert, and Mikis Theodorakis--to create material that came straight from her turbulent life. (She was a sexually voracious alcoholic and morphine addict, suffered numerous auto accidents and illnesses, and lost the great love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, in a plane crash.) Her romantic ballads and long-form story songs led listeners down the dark, often dangerous back alleys of love; with unsentimental candor, worldly compassion, and a sometimes jaunty wit, she told of hookers and hoodlums, suicide pacts and one-night stands. Bitton's stage presence suggests Piaf's, but she doesn't try to impersonate her idol: her voice is lighter, her interpretations more dramatized and less declamatory. But in her fiercely rolled rs and her way of dragging a lyric up from the gut, she conveys the same Gallic pride and passion. She brings intelligence and insight to such Piaf classics as "La vie en rose," "Hymne a l'amour," and "Non, je ne regrette rien," and her reading of "T'es beau tu sais" (in which the homely Piaf exults her lover's good looks) actually surpasses the original in haunting beauty. For this concert Bitton is accompanied by a 20-piece orchestra (under the baton of Bill Keck, who also conducted on her recent Piaf CD) and sings mostly in French, punctuating her selections with biographical commentary and explanations of the lyrics. The show will send Piaf admirers back to her recordings with fresh ears--and also, one hopes, introduce a new audience to one of the greatest popular singers of all time. Saturday, 8 PM, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000. ALBERT WILLIAMS

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