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Musical Piaf/Dietrich celebrates the friendship between Édith Piaf, the great French chanteuse, played by Louise Pitre, left, and the German-born Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich, played by Jayne Lewis, right.Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish Productions

  • Title: Piaf/Dietrich
  • Written by: Daniel Große Boymann and Thomas Kahry
  • Adapted by: Erin Shields
  • Directed by: Gordon Greenberg
  • Genre: Musical
  • Actors: Louise Pitre, Jayne Lewis
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: CAA Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Dec. 8
  • Rating: 3 stars

With all those tales of duelling divas, from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, it’s a pleasure to learn about a couple of showbiz legends who really liked each other.

Piaf/Dietrich, the vibrant musical biography unfolding at the CAA Theatre, celebrates the long-time bond between Édith Piaf, the great French chanteuse, and the German-born Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich. Here were two 20th-century icons who put aside their big egos to share career advice, comfort, commiserate and cheer each other on.

Piaf and Dietrich were never rivals.Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish Productions

True, the two were never rivals. Piaf had an incredible voice but was small and scrawny and dressed as if she were part of a funeral cortège. Dietrich, on the other hand, was a singer of limited ability but a silver-screen goddess who exuded glamour from every pore.

They were also temperamental opposites. Piaf/Dietrich has been adapted by Canadian playwright Erin Shields from a 2013 German musical by Daniel Grobe Boymann and Thomas Kahry that was originally titled Spatz und Engel (“Sparrow and Angel”) – a reference to Piaf’s scrappy nickname, “The Little Sparrow,” and Dietrich’s steamy breakthrough film, 1930’s The Blue Angel. But Shields might also have renamed it Fire and Ice.

As presented here, Piaf was the passionate, doomed Frenchwoman who laid bare her heart and soul in such classics as Non, je ne regrette rien and Hymne à l’amour. Dietrich was the cool, pragmatic German who cruised through life, leaving lovers in her wake. It’s a contrast strikingly conveyed by the show’s two stars, Louise Pitre and Jayne Lewis.

Piaf was the passionate, doomed Frenchwoman who laid bare her heart and soul in such classics as Non, je ne regrette rien and Hymne à l’amour.Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish Productions

Dietrich was the cool, pragmatic German who cruised through life, leaving lovers in her wake.Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish Productions

Pitre, we know, is a brilliant Piaf interpreter. She has played the chanteuse memorably in the past and here she puts so much raw emotional power into her songs that every number is a showstopper.

Pitre puts so much raw emotional power into her songs that every number is a showstopper.Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish Productions

Pitre has also done this show before, when it had its English-language premiere in Montreal last year. Lewis, however, is a newcomer to it. She’s a bewitching but grounded Dietrich, playing up her fur-clad Venus image in public while privately talking good Teutonic common sense to Piaf as she does her own housework. She also sings Dietrich’s signature tunes (Lili Marleen, Just a Gigolo) with aplomb, deftly mimicking her smoky contralto.

The show takes us from the pair’s first meeting, in 1940s New York, when Piaf was trying to break into the American market and Dietrich took her under her wing, through their subsequent sometimes-happy, sometimes-stormy relationship. There’s a sweetly funny scene early on where, after knocking back bottles of Dom Pérignon, the two wind up in bed in Dietrich’s suite in the Plaza Hotel. Whether or not they really were lovers (and the playfully androgynous Dietrich was almost certainly bisexual), Shields uses that tender moment as the foundation for their intimacy.

We get glimpses of their subsequent triumphs and tragedies. We also see the women estranged due to Piaf’s increasing addictions, until simultaneous career lows bring them back together.

Their story inevitably includes a supporting cast of famous people – Noel Coward, Lena Horne, Burt Bacharach, to name a few – who are nimbly embodied by Louise Camilleri, Réjean Cournoyer and W. Joseph Matheson.

Their story inevitably includes a supporting cast of famous people.Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish Productions

Director Gordon Greenberg’s production turns the theatre into a glitzy cabaret, complete with a staircase-and-chandelier set by Michael Gianfrancesco. The walls of the auditorium have been plastered with vintage posters for Piaf’s albums and Dietrich’s movies. They reminded me of that old Suzanne Vega song, Marlene on the Wall, and its line, “Her mocking smile says it all.” I can imagine the phantoms of Dietrich and Piaf watching this show with a smile, not of mockery, but affection.

Piaf/Dietrich continues to Dec. 8. (mirvish.com)

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