Married to a Frenchman, actress/vocalist Gay Marshall has, for many years, lived in both Paris and New York. Formidable renditions of French songs offered in two languages are part of her signature repertoire. These days, Marshall is also retranslating lyrics. I’m pleased to say she does this with respect, not reverence and meticulous attention to unfussy poetry.
A small, sinewy woman with steely presence, the performer has a powerful voice with extremely flexible timbre, including unexpected vocal pivots. Gestures are minimal; the closing of a fist or outstretched arm with open palm arrive with significance. Marshall delivers a rallying cry as if at the barricades. Lyrics that seethe feel wrenched from her guts. She combusts with joy. There are no half measures.
Gay’s Paree is framed as a walk through her second home, past colorful memories. Marshall, who calls herself “a conflicted Francophile,” is no dewy eyed ingénue. Her perspective on The City of Light is balanced. Attitudes and incidents are related with honest frustration as well as affection. Americans, she finds, cling to a rose-colored view as if romance verged on extinction. (Sounds accurate.)
Dave Frishberg’s “Another Song About Paris,” a fitting preface, is too robust for its sentiments but Francis Lemarque’s “A Paris” emerges just right. We’re in Montmartre, meeting her scrappy voice teacher, entering the stage door of The Folies Bergère “with can-can dresses up high, a little pair of booties hung just beneath each one,” singing in French to the French – by which she’s somewhat astonished.
“La Boheme” (Charles Aznavour/Jacques Plante/Gaye Marshall) sails in on luxurious waves of Ian’s Herman’s piano arrangement. Longing is almost visible. Marshall initially learned “Les Grandes Boulevards” phonetically from an old Yves Montand record. Hand on a hip, the song picks up swagger. To the uninitiated, these are the words of an insouciant boulevardier. The artist was distressed to learn its lyrics reveal “stalking a poor creature and pushing her into an alley.” I, for one, will never hear it the same way again. (Norbert Glanzberg/Jacques Plante)
Living in Paris, Marshall felt it was incumbent upon her to experience singing in the streets. She chose a footbridge to The Isle St. Louis. A tender story about a seemingly homeless fan leads into the unfamiliar “Stone” (Michel Berger/Luc Plamandon/Tim Rice) from the French musical Starmania – yes, Virginia, there are evidently French musicals. The song is as dark as they come: The world is stone…It’s cold to the touch/It’s hard on the soul…I would love not to care…laisser mourir (let me die)…Marshall’s muscular performance is backed by roiling, inextricably entwined music.
Behavior the vocalist has learned in France includes: “Don’t smile. Say hardly anything. Never hug the French…Sometimes the crushing condescension gets to you,” she comments. “J’suis Snob” follows. Emulating an affected, French television personality, Marshall becomes a caricature brought to life. She’s really funny, partially because of acting, partially due to a wry translation which ends, My tombstone’s gonna say/Died completely blasé…(Jimmy Walter/Boris Vian/Gay Marshall)
Also retranslated are “La Chanson des Vieux Amants” (Jacques Brel/Gay Marshall), a love song for the ages and the iconic “Sous le Ciel de Paris” (Hubert Giraud/Jean Drejac/Gay Marshall) which, in this author’s hands becomes jubilant rather than rife with yearning. Herman’s gorgeous piano music veritably twirls. It seems astonishing everyone’s able to stay seated.
We’re now at The Avenue des Champs–Élysées, described as having morphed into “an expensive shopping mall.” Still, its panoramic view and dense history resonate with Marshall, especially through her father-in-law’s recounting of war stories. A trio of songs then becomes, to my mind, the highlight of the evening: “Les Grognards” (Pierre Delanoe), “La Colombe” (Hubert Giraud/Jacques Brel) and “Sons Of” (Alistair Clayre/Jacques Brel/Eric Blau/Mort Shuman.)
Listen people of Paris, the first begins, We’re ghosts of the people who fought for you…who never saw how beautiful you are…Tonight we’re marching up the Champs–Élysées without guns or boots…Why the present hour, the second continues with soldiers in the field… At which our childhood ends/At which our luck runs out/At which our train moves away?… The same sweet smiles, the same sad tears/The cries at night, the nightmare fears/Sons of the great or sons unknown/All were children like your own…sings the agonized third.
The medley is an exuberant anthem, an inexorable march, a heart-rending cry, a fervent warning. Marshall performs with soul and conviction, reaching in through our sweaters and defenses, stilling and affecting us all. Music ebbs and swells with almost classical drama, textually complex but cohesive, ending like a psalm. We’ve been on a journey.
“Mon Manage a Moi” (Norbert Glanzberg/Jean Constantin) leaves us with a dancy, music hall number about love, love, love, its gleeful momentum like a raft over rapids.
Though warm and entertaining, patter could be successfully cut by half. If “Les Feuilles Mortes”/“Autumn Leaves” (Joseph Cosma/Jacques Prevert/Gay Marshall) is a lesser translation, other efforts display superb writing. This is an engaging show of headlong emotion, smart observation, and accomplished talent.
Marshall’s choice of multifaceted MD/Pianist, Ian Herman, could not be better.
Photos by Jean-Louis Blondeau
Gay Marshall at Pangea: Gay’s Paree
Ian Herman- Musical Director/Piano
Pangea Supper Club
178 Second Avenue at 11th Street
Additional Shows: November 2 and 9, 2016
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