Edith Piaf in Drag

A new show pays a unique homage to the Little Sparrow

John Jarboe as the Little Sparrow (courtesy of the Wilma Theater)

Known for her often tragically beautiful interpretations of French songs like “La Vie en Rose,” Edith Piaf has always been a kind of gay-friendly icon.

Starting July 7, John Jarboe is one of several performers who plays the Little Sparrow in No Regrets: A Piaf Affair at the Wilma Theater (can-can dancers, confetti, accordions and all). It’s the first of four cabarets created by the Bearded Ladies and presented by the Wilma this season that pays tribute to Paris.

We talked to the Bearded Ladies Cabaret’s artistic director about what inspired him to croon his way into Piaf’s rather legendary shoes as he gets ready to open the show tonight.

What made you decide to create a drag homage to Edith Piaf?

There is something about a tall man with hairy legs, in a black dress, and singing French love songs that captures the beautiful contradiction of Edith Piaf’s life and music. She is simultaneously the treasured voice of Paris and love – and a girl of the street, someone who had nothing. However, there are actually a total of six Edith Piafs in the show, some played by men, some by women. Piaf both is and sees herself as a complex prism of a person, and we show this through actually multiplying her onstage.

Any challenges you face portraying her?

Her voice is so distinct and stunning. Trying to do it and her music justice is always a challenge – and a wonderful one at that. Also, since I don’t actually speak French, learning to properly sing in French was a long process.

Is this portrayal more about impersonation or interpretation?

This is most definitely about interpretation. The show explores the complexities of love: loving a man, loving an audience, loving oneself. Piaf is our vehicle for this exploration because she was obsessed with how love affairs with songs or people have shaped our life. Each portrayal of Edith in a song and by a different performer offers a different side of Edith and a different perspective on the pleasures and pitfalls of love.

How do you expect audiences will react to Piaf being played by a man?

I think it is funny at first, but eventually I’d like it if they forgot, if they were swept up in the portrayal.

What are some of the songs included in the cabaret?

We perform most of her really famous songs such as “Milord” and “La Vie en Rose,” as well as more obscure ones like “Mon Menage a Moi” – a song about a carousel. That song really captures the ambivalence of Edith Piaf. It seems to me that she’s so full of tragedy and regret, and yet she sings – over and over – that she will regret nothing.

No Regrets: A Piaf Affair, July 7-9, 14-16, 10:30 p.m., Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824.