Edith Piaf's tragic story arrives on Broadway after London triumph

Piaf Starring Jane Lapotaire. Play by Pam Gems. Directed by Howard Davies. "Piaf," the Royal Shakespeare Company's recent sensational London hit, has arrived here with its original British star in place, a largely American cast in support, and its sensations apparently intact. Jane Lapotaire makes an impressive Broadway debut as France's legendary "little sparrow," whose artistry made her the highest- paid singer in the world and whose disordered personal life was regularly headlined throughout her career.

Pam Gens has crowded fragments of Piaf's fragmented existence into what the Plymouth Theater Playbill calls "a celebration of the life of Edith Piaf, from the '20s through 1963." Apart from Miss Lapotaire's spine-tingling performance of several mostly lesser-known Piaf songs, there is more to regret than to celebrate in this explicit and insistently sordid account. Even the star's histrionic and vocal tour de force cannot disguise the superficiality of the drama itself. No gratuitous expletives, obscenities, or shock effect is spared in the course of exploiting Piaf's memory.

Miss Lapotaire catches the total brashness and naivete of the streetwise but unwordly teen-ager who had been born literally on a sidewalk and whose childhood home was a brothel. Like the jaunty little bird after which Piaf was nicknamed, the British star's portrayal exults in a shrewd toughness, raucous humor, and an indominability that grows with adversity. It is this indominability that sustains Piaf's tremendous determination to perform even after alcohol, drugs, accidents, and personal tragedy have taken their savage toll. In the final performing scenes -- and largely because of the dynamic integrity of Miss Lapotaire's portrayal -- "Piaf" achieves a stature despite itself. Sung in French and English, the songs commemorate the artistry and intensity of a unique talent.

Zoe Wanamaker gives a sharply comic assist as a prostitute who achieved married respectability and remained Piaf's lifelong friend. From among the others who figured more or less conspicuously in the Piaf saga, Mrs. Gems has provided small roles for the doomed cabaret owner, "Papa" leplee (Peter Friedman), Marlene Dietrich (Jean Smart), prizefighter Marcel Cerdan (played here by the fine black actor Robert Christian), and Piaf's youthful last husband (David Purdham). David Leary as a recurrent emecee-manager and Stephen Davies as the singer's agent are among the more conspicuous Parisian types portrayed by a numerous cast, most of whose members play more than one role.

To accommodate the work's Royal Shakespeare Company origins and the lower-class British speech employed by Miss Lapotaire and Miss Wanamaker, Howard Davies has directed the predominantly American company to speak with a variety of English accents. The approach works reasonably well in the context of this transatlantic production.

The musical numbers are sympathetically accompanied by an onstage trio under the leadership of pianist Michael Dansicker. The spare setting, with its overhanging neon abstract, was designed by Davd Jenkins, with costumes by Julie Weiss and lighting by Beverly Emmons. The Captivity of Pixie Shedman

Play by Romulus Linney Directed by John Pasquin.

A faltering writer communes with four very persistent ghosts and relives some family history in Romulus Linney's bleak new drama at the Marymount Manhattan Theater. Commissioned by the Phoenix Theater, "The Captivity of Pixie Shedman" presents two views of the North Carolina Shedmans and, in particular, the strange Pixie of the title.

Among the effects left by the recently deceased grandmother (Penelope Allen) is an account book containing a fantasized, floridly written memoir in which she depicts the men in her life as savage Indian captors. In the view of her grandson Bertram (William Carden), however, Pixie was the manipulator as well as the manipulated. In the course of reading Pixie's melodramatic memoir, Bertram renews acquaintances with his clamorous antecedents and finally manages to escape their haunting grasp.

Lengthy flashbacks tell how an impoverished Pixie leaves her home for Washington to become the mistress and secretary of a scheming senator (Ron Randell). She subsequently marries the senator's weak son, Doc Shedman (Jon DeVries). They move to Kansas, where Doc goes to the dogs, while Pixie becomes a doting and domineering mother.

Mr. Linney has stated that this autobiographical play is "extraordinarily close" to him emotionally. He has sought, especially, to emphasize the affectionate but sometimes fractious relationship between Pixie and Bertram, who went to live with her as a child. Yet the author has failed to make either Pixie's ghostly past or Bertram's gloomy present of any great concern to the spectator.

Under John Pasquin's staging, the Shedmans are acted with a variety of skills and accents by a cast that includes Leon Russom as Doc Shedman Jr. and Sarah Navin as the small daughter who lives with Bertram's ex-wife. Designer Robert Blackman's shabby New York apartment-hotel studio setting features an antique phonograph on which Bertram plays cracked 78s of grand opera, popular music, and Harry Lauder. The production was costumed b y Linda Fisher and lighted by Jennifer Tipton.

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