Ehlers takes on Édith Piaf in ‘Little Sparrow’

Lize Ehlers. Photo: Martha Mukaiwa

Elements of the life and music of French icon Édith Piaf are at the heart of ‘Little Sparrow’, a sold-out one-woman cabaret written and directed by Senga Brockerhoff and starring Lize Ehlers.

Premiering on the upper terrace of the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre (FNCC) recently, ‘Little Sparrow’ tells the tragic but triumphant story of Cecile, a lounge singer chasing a tattered dream in German-occupied France at the beginning of World War 2.

Plucked from a farm in South West Africa by a belittling man named Klaus, Cecile, played by Ehlers, flees Klaus’ German home to hide in Paris.

Here, working at a café/brothel, her ambitions of becoming a singer rise from the ashes of her marriage as she entertains soldiers with her voice and flesh.

As Cecile survives, lies with soldiers, works for the resistance and ruminates on her life story, Brockerhoff weaves Piaf’s musical catalogue through the cabaret in bursts of bittersweet levity, love, hurt, defiance and tenderness.

Ehlers, who runs the gauntlet of these emotions, is up to the theatrical task.

A scene recalling the death of Cecile’s father and ending with Piaf’s ‘La vie en rose’ is entrancing while Ehlers’ voice is a dream.

At this point, it must be noted that Ehlers is not precisely engaged in an act of impersonation.

The actress dons the black dress, cropped curls, expressive hands and pencil thin eyebrows of the French superstar, at times she rolls the requisite ‘r’ and adds some rasp and some brass to her voice, but Ehlers makes it her own.

Vocally, appreciating that Ehlers operating at 80 percent is most performers at 120, the singer does leave a little something to be desired.

There are moments when Ehlers’ voice catches, it seems to disappear and there are notes that fans of the singer will know that she is capable of reaching, that she foregoes.

The fact that Ehlers wasn’t yet entirely off book was somewhat distracting and sometimes broke connection with the audience.

While renditions of Piaf’s ‘La Foule’, ‘Mon manège à moi’, ‘L’Accordéoniste’, ‘Padam Padam’ and ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, are no doubt demanding and were even crowd-pleasing, the show as a whole begged for further rehearsal and a touch more polish.

This includes the actual entrance where a dismissive FNCC staff member’s professionalism and problem-solving skills were non-existent when encouraged to confirm my complimentary invitation by the director, as they mistakenly did not note it at the door.

I was only attended to and finally allowed in after asking the staff if they preferred I just go home, which prompted a simple but begrudging confirmation with Brockerhoff.

No cordiality or apology was offered from the door staff.

This lack of refinement was echoed in the showing.

Firstly, a noisy contingent at the back bar that Brockerhoff literally had to shush in annoyance marred the experience.

Sound and screaming mic issues that let down Ehlers more than once were a disruption.

And finally, a woefully unconvincing chorus line in an otherwise solid number was also questionable if not for comedic effect.

“We rehearsed nonstop with infectious passion and intention, but moving into venue on the day and being blasted by the elements – wind and cold – was very challenging. A myriad of technical avalanches also contributed to the outcome,” says Ehlers, responding to my commentary.

“We look forward to smoothing out the production with proper technical rehearsals and spending more time in the performance venue next time, before opening night.”

Beautifully written by Brockerhoff, performed with undeniably remarkable vocal and theatrical skill by Ehlers, but ultimately erratic, ‘Little Sparrow’ opened to a standing ovation and teases a second take in the near future.

In my opinion, take two would benefit from a more intimate, acoustic and dressed venue/stage and should welcome the return of musicians Jesus Lasso Rey (violin), Angela Hofmeyr (accordion) and Wojtek Majewski (keys), who no doubt elevated a promising celebration of one of France’s greats.

–; Martha Mukaiwa on Twitter and Instagram;

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