From Bogotá to Paris to Broadway

Photos by Andre Gagne

According to Google Maps, it's about 3631.16 miles (and a whole lot of swimming) to get from Paris to Broadway. Recent Ottawa immigrant Maria Alejendra arrived from a little bit closer last night with a passport stamped byway of the National Arts Centre.

Leaving her homeland of Columbia was hard, taking much courage and a huge leap of faith, but she came to Canada last year with her husband seeking a life they could not find back home.

“We decided to come here for academic and professional projects that make us grow, to know other methods of work and study,” she explains, saying that in leaving they have only grown more and here in Ottawa found new experiences to explore and discover.

Maria Alejendra

One of those took place last night when, for the first time, she would be hear the NAC Orchestra. As an added bonus to the glorious music, the show just happened to be an international experience with the melodies of the past  transporting her even further then the streets of the capital they now call home.

Beginning with a rousing overture, the orchestra, conducted by Jack Everly, took Maria on a journey that began in 1869 inside the glamorous Parisian music hall The Folies Bergère. It was then off to the bright lights of Broadway for a show that showcased the links between both radically different cultures through very similar music.

“Tonight we’re celebrating something very special,” said conductor Jack Everly after the first number set the tone for the evening.

“In a way it’s show business. In a way it’s the glorious French musical halls, the songs of the French cafes, the boulevards in Paris. It celebrated form, femininity and, ok, feathers and rhinestones too.”

There would be plenty of both as the show progressed, the Parisian and New York City theatres reimagined before Maria’s wide eyes. Watching her transfixed by the show you'd have to think that if those eyes grew any larger she could be confused for a Japanese animee character. Music, she says, is in her DNA so this was a real treat. Her first memories of music paint cherished images of a grandfather who tried to teach her how to play the violin and the cello. Though never mastering either, the lessons gave her an appreciation for music outside of the more traditional sounds of Columbia.

“I learned that an instrument is not played, it is enjoyed,” she says. “ An instrument is treated like you can treat a woman: with love, with delicacy, understanding their moments, never forceful and showing importance to every detail.”

Adapting to the Canadian winter was not easy, especially one that had such mountainous amounts of sno,w so the heavy rain falling this night was just fine for Maria. It made it all the easier when combined with the show’s soundtrack to picture roaming dimly lit cobblestone streets in old Montmartre where the songs drift from open windows, an accordion on a corner plays. A little further back in time the unmistakable voice of Piaf inside Le Gerny's off the Champs-Élysées famously sings of having no regrets.

“I felt like I was in Paris and also on Broadway,” said Maria. “I felt the cultural mix which I love and it made me remember my childhood…my grandfather. I wanted to have my mom and my brother here; my dad, my angel was already with me.”

The Little Sparrow of France, Edith Piaf, made her journey from Paris to Broadway in 1947 to mixed reactions…at first. It wouldn’t take long for the Western world to embrace her as the French had. Her signature song, “La Vie en rose” was performed last night by one of the gems of Canadian musical theatre, Louise Pitre, who knows a thing or three about the French chanteuse. She portrayed her in three productions of the musical Piaf to much acclaim.

“I should quite while I’m ahead,” joked Pitre who thankfully didn't. She would return bedecked in a feathery boa for a show stopping recreation of a traditional cabaret number alongside singer Ron Remke.

“I’m going to put you through your paces now. I want you to imagine an incredible French musical hall Folies Bergère number because you’re about to hear exactly what one would sound like,” explained Everly before the climatic spectacle of the first act began.

Of course, you couldn’t have such a display of French theatrical opulence without at least one dancing girl and Vegas based Jubilee Showgirl, Alexandra Remke, shimmied and strutted leaving feathers behind her, the glisten of the rhinestones she wore with little else twinkling in the eyes of the audience.

If this number brought the crowd to its feet, it was the tap dancing twins that brought down the house. Sean and John Scott started dancing at the age of 6 and would develop a unique repertoire of moves over their career. It seemed like every one of them was put on display last night! 

The two were taking a break from their own Vegas show to put together a number in tribute to two other dancing siblings, the Nicolas Brothers. The team of Fayard and Harold perfected acrobatic tap dancing at a speed so accelerated that they called it flash dancing. Giving their first performances in 1926, they’d become featured performers at the famed Cotton Club in 1930s Harlem.

The brothers Scott did well in providing an equally high-octane performance with moments reaching speeds equivalent to the final stretch at the Kentucky Derby.

“I taught them how to do that,” quipped Everly during the Scott brother’s second standing ovation.

Other links between the two theatrical cities included nods to legendary French performers Georges Guétary and Maurice Chevalier, Broadway darlings Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and, of course, a booming Can-can that high kicked it’s way out of the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s and certainly influenced Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes a few decades later.

So caught up in the performance, Maria was still dancing as she left the theatre. The rain fell harder than before but she still didn’t mind. Though it was the Peace Tower reflected in the growing sidewalk puddles, she was picturing the Eiffel Tower or perhaps a blinking marquee on the Great White Way.

“From beginning to end it was a unique spectacle,” beamed Maria after the show saying that she wished everyone in Colombia could have experienced it with her. She could not pick out a favorite moment, she only knew that she didn’t want to leave unless, of course, stepping out of the theatre meant stepping into the City of Lights!