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Bilingual Clark wows Montreal


Monday, October 30, 2000

Thêātre St. Denis, Montreal on Saturday

Petula Clark would make a perfect Canadian -- the fluently bilingual kind that Pierre Trudeau dreamed this country would produce. Switching effortlessly between French and English, Clark took over Thêātre St. Denis Saturday night. This was the only Canadian date on her North American tour, which picks up in California next month, and she was making the most of being in Montreal.

The last time Clark played this city was in 1976. It was a period of heightened political tension, and the singer's determination to switch between English and French was not well received by some fans and critics. Her return almost a quarter of a century later was much more welcoming, signalling a markedly different social reality in Quebec. Clark is an international star, and the audience proved it can now appreciate a celebrity of her stature without feeling threatened by her easy bilingualism.

The former child star -- who turns 68 on Nov. 15 -- is clearly at home on any stage. Acting the gracious host, Clark guided her fans through a Vegas-style evening dedicated to her 60-year career. From her early days entertaining the Allied troops during the Second World War, to being an "Anglais" star in France, to the pop-filled sixties, to her Hollywood films and Broadway musicals, Clark has always revealed herself as a consummate performer. Over the years, she has sold nearly 70 million records in four languages -- English, French, Italian and German -- and is still the most successful female singer in British chart history.

So it was rewarding to see how well her voice has survived the years. Strong and buoyant, it showed no signs of faltering as Clark tackled a variety of styles -- jazz, pop, British music-hall numbers, French chansons and Broadway tunes. And with most of her songs clocking in at the three-minute mark, Clark was able to cover a lot of territory in a scant two hours.

Her pop days were rolled into a sixties medley, with snippets of I Know A Place, A Sign of the Times and My Love, and culminating in an extended version of Downtown, thanks to additional French verses. The seven-song medley served as a worthy tribute to the singer's fruitful collaboration with songwriter Tony Hatch -- Britain's answer to Burt Bacharach -- whose elegant arrangements were some of the best of that decade.

Throughout her career, Clark has had many admirers, including John Lennon, Michael Jackson and Sheryl Crow, as well as Canadian piano virtuoso Glenn Gould, who said that her work with Hatch was better than the Beatles. Highlights of the evening's well-paced repertoire were a stunning rendition of Don't Sleep in the Subway, with its rich Beach Boy-esque harmonies, a rousing Tell Me It's Not True from the Blood Brothers musical, and I Am Not Afraid, a candid testimonial about being forever in the public eye.

As Clark confessed, "Growing up in front of millions wasn't fun." Despite building a solid career in Britain in the forties as a Shirley Temple equivalent, Clark felt stifled by fans who wouldn't allow her to grow up.

It was only when she moved to France in the late 1950s, and started performing sophisticated French pop songs written by Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg, that she was finally able to shake her image of the eternal adolescent.

For the evening's largely francophone crowd, Clark sang many of her French hits, such as Que fais-tu la Petula? and Chariot, as well as adding French lyrics to several of her English songs. As a treat for her Montreal fans, she covered a stirring Vivre, taken from the Notre-Dame de Paris musical written by local hero Luc Plamondon.

When the show concluded and Clark basked in the limelight, several male fans rushed the stage to offer her bouquets of red roses. It was a fitting gesture for a seasoned performer who proved beyond a doubt that she deserves all the accolades she has received.

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