What Makes a Man Puts a New Spin on a French Pop Icon
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What Makes a Man Puts a New Spin on a French Pop Icon

Toronto theatre company Necessary Angel's tribute to the songwriting genius of Charles Aznavour aims high but falls short.

Louise Pitre (foreground) stars with Kenny Brawner (left) and Saida Baba Talibah in Necessary Angel’s What Makes a Man. Photo by John Lauener.

Even if you’ve never heard of Charles Aznavour, chances are you’ve recently heard one of his songs. The great French-Armenian singer-songwriter’s 1974 hit “She” has been covered yet again—this time by Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs on the trailer for the new David Fincher thriller, Gone Girl.

If that ballad made you curious, then you should know about Necessary Angel’s new show, What Makes a Man, an ambitious tribute to the Aznavour songbook premiering at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre. But be forewarned that, like Butler’s anemic cover, this erratic musical revue doesn’t impart the full flavour of Aznavour’s artistry.

Co-creators Jennifer Tarver and Justin Ellington get full marks for trying adventurous new approaches to Aznavour’s classic songs, a few of which (“She,” “Yesterday When I Was Young”) have been covered to death. And there are certainly some exciting performances, from Louise Pitre’s spine-tingling “A Young Girl” to Andrew Penner’s beautifully understated recitation of the show’s title number. But at other times Ellington’s arrangements seem to be battling, rather than enhancing, the material, while director Tarver hasn’t figured out how to make her production work as a piece of theatre.

Digging into Aznavour’s bulging back catalogue—which reputedly consists of more than 800 songs—Tarver has come up with 20 that are meant to express four facets of the man, or at least of his artistic personae. These are the poet, the lover, the performer, and the survivor, represented respectively by Penner, Saidah Baba Talibah, Kenny Brawner, and Pitre. The four vocalists in turn bring their own styles and genres to the work. Senior jazz-blues artist Brawner, a Ray Charles disciple, gives his renditions a laid-back, bluesy feel. Young R&B singer Talibah injects her numbers with a hard edge of rock and soul. Penner, the lead singer of Sunparlour Players, remakes Aznavour into a country-folk tunesmith, even adding harmonica and kazoo to his jangly sound.

Musical theatre veteran Pitre, singing both in English and French (like Aznavour himself), comes closest to the man’s signature chansonnier style—although she doesn’t convey the Aznavour wit. She prefers instead the dramatic manner of his mentor, Edith Piaf. Indeed, her highlight, “A Young Girl,” the tragic tale of a 16-year-old runaway, was originally recorded by Piaf as “Une Enfant.”

The show’s overarching mood is retrospective, heralded by the opening song, “Yesterday When I Was Young.” Its melancholy air of nostalgia and regret, gently underplayed by Brawner, hangs over the show like a persistent raincloud. It permeates the wistful Montmartre portrait “La Bohème,” sung lustily by Pitre as if it were one of the revolutionaries’ numbers from Les Misérables, as well as “It Will Be My Day,” a failed artist’s tale of unrealized dreams, performed by Penner as a busking one-man band.

Even Talibah, for all her vitality, imbues her songs with an aching yearning. She’s a strong singer but also seems the least comfortable with the material. And it doesn’t help that she is handed the most misguided of Ellington’s arrangements: a brassy rock version of “And I in My Chair” that turns the song’s subtle emotional tensions into a sledgehammer. It’s like watching an Eric Rohmer film remade by Michael Bay.

For much of the show, the shambling, round-faced Penner serves as the comic relief. But then he surprises us with the once-daring “What Makes a Man.” Written by Aznavour in 1972, just three years after the Stonewall riots, it’s a dated but still potent plea for tolerance told from the point of view of a lonely drag queen. Avoiding any gay affectations and soft-pedalling the pathos, Penner delivers the most poignant performance of the evening.

Tarver and Ellington make a weak attempt to link the songs with bits of lyrics spoken like narrative. And Tarver’s stark staging is also uninspired. She has the singers continually moving up and down three long, dark blue risers, designed by Teresa Przybylski and sombrely lit by Kimberly Purtell. The minimalist aesthetic doesn’t extend to the slick, six-piece backing band, led by pianist Dave Restivo, which at times threatens to overpower the singing. As a film actor, Aznavour famously starred in François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. While Restivo doesn’t make you want to whip out a gun, you are tempted to get his attention with a pea-shooter and tell him to dial it down a few notches.

There’s talent to burn in this show, and plenty of great songs, but it never quite hangs together. Tarver, Necessary Angel’s new artistic director, whose past credits include that revelatory revival of Waiting for Godot at the 2013 Stratford Festival, seems oddly at a loss this time out. What Makes a Man looks like a piece that needs more thought and more work.