Even in a city like New York (or maybe, especially), it’s not so often that you see raw talent. When Jonathan Capdevielle takes the stage in Adishatz/Adieu, a joint presentation by American Realness and COIL, it’s hard to know what to expect. He looks like he’s 16, in new jeans and a grey hoodie, with big eyes and floppy bangs. Is he scared, or just looking like it? He clears his throat and falteringly begins to sing the chorus of “Holiday.” Then “Lucky Star,” and “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Open Your Heart” and “Like a Prayer,” and pretty soon the songs are too many to tally. As his voice gains strength, mimicking Madonna’s soprano into a surprisingly convincing impersonation, a performer is born before our eyes.
So when he changes into a blonde wig, a black mini-dress and white stilettos for the rest of the show, it’s no surprise, really. What is a constant amazement, however, is Capdevielle’s vocal skill; in the middle of his Madonna best-of, he launches into a convincing Francis Cabrel (“La Corrida”) and will later do Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” He can also tell a story in a six-voice polyphony (in a scene about a clubbing night that ends badly) and mimic the labored respiration and speech of his dying sister (even with a lollipop in his mouth): there’s no need to see the sorry figures in these stories; the vocal variations, that also allow for regional particularities. capture them as well as any image.
Adishatz/Adieu is the fragmented, bumpy, just barely outlined story of Capdevielle’s growing up gay in Tarbes, a town of 48,000 people about 12 miles from the Catholic pilgrimage site at Lourdes, in agricultural, conservative southwest France. Adishatz means hello – or goodbye – in Occitan, the language of his forefathers in the region, so the show’s title can read as a farewell to his roots. The show’s most powerful sequence for me was when Capdevielle does a conversation between himself in a neutral French accent and his father in a heavily inflected Gascon one; his father is asking about Jojo’s plans to come home and says he’s putting flowers on his wife’s and daughter’s graves for the Toussaint holiday. Jonathan is telling him he is working in New York now, and trying to cut the conversation short while he sits at a dressing table putting on makeup and the wig. It’s clear he’s cut ties with the routines and obligations his father evokes, and when he does his Gaga number a few minutes later under a disco ball, we know he’s never going back to the life in the sticks.
The Francis Cabrel song may not resonate with American audiences but it’s a powerful choice that sums up Capdevielle’s struggle to find his way in the world (especially as Cabrel is another native son of France’s southwest). “La Corrida” is told from the point of view of a bull, hunted down in the ring while the public cheers. If Adishatz/Adieu had a refrain, it would be Cabrel’s in “La Corrida,” which asks: “Is this world for real?”
Another surprising musical choice comes in the show’s finale, when a five-member male chorus suddenly appears to sings “Oh Shenandoah” while Capdevielle lies in a crumpled mess on the floor. The chorus’ harmonizing is thrilling to hear (especially after so much Madonna…) and while they seem out of place, they offer a deeply moving send-off: “Away, I’m bound away / ‘Cross the wide Missouri”. We hope the talented Capdevielle finds his way, too.