From Piaf to Cleopatra, This Is the American Spring of Britain's Multitalented Jane Lapotaire

updated 04/27/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/27/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Edith Piaf, the fragile chanteuse whose tremulous warble and tragic life enthralled the French soul, remains, two decades after her death, one of the top-selling singers in France. But attempts to import the magic of Piaf to this country had fallen flatter than a cold soufflé until earlier this year. That was when Jane Lapotaire arrived on Broadway in the biodrama Piaf. Lapotaire has been dazzling sellout audiences with the same bawdy virtuoso performance that won her three major theater awards during the play's two-year London run. But she doesn't fear typecasting. Her other roles include Rosalind in As You Like It, Madame Curie, and, next month, Olympias in a PBS mini-series, The Search for Alexander the Great. This week she appears as a mercurial, mid-life Cleopatra in PBS' Antony and Cleopatra. Lapotaire does see similarities in her lady characters: "Cleopatra and Piaf, for example, are both complete mixtures of contrasts," she finds, "selfish and generous, vulnerable and arrogant. They're women with an insatiable appetite for life."

Lapotaire herself is hardly dieting. "I'm at a crossroads right now," she says. "I'm enjoying my success. I love New York. I'm not homesick for London at all." She wouldn't have time to miss it—with seven performances a week, daily dance class and physical therapy for an arm ailment caused by wear and tear from her grueling role in Piaf. Lapotaire sings nine of Edith's gems (including La Vie en Rose), ages 30 years, takes on an army of lovers, survives several car crashes and becomes a morphine addict.

But one offstage casualty of Lapotaire's own rise has been her 10-year marriage to Roland Joffe, a British director and father of her son, Rowan, 8. "When Rowan was born," she recalls, "we were living in a two-room flat with no toilet and no garden. It's ironic that we separated while I was doing Piaf in London, just when things were getting easier for us." Joffe visited his wife and son this year and Jane, an alumna of a consciousness-raising group, insists, "My marriage is by no means over." Yet it was British actor Michael Pennington whose flat Jane shared in St. John's Wood last year, and who was her guest at Piaf's Broadway opening. "We're just friends. I like living on my own," she says.

Jane's difficult childhood in Ipswich, England seems right out of Piaf. Left at birth in the foster home where her teenage French-born mother grew up, Jane was raised by the very same woman and calls her "Gran." She never met her father, but was told he was an American GI. Her mother eventually married a French oil executive, Yves Lapotaire, and soon after asked Jane, then 11, to live with them. "I stayed with Gran, though she had no phone or indoor toilet and they had a villa on the Mediterranean coast with a houseboat and a TV," says Jane.

In 1965 she graduated from the Old Vic Drama School in Bristol, and eventually she joined the National Theatre Company, when Laurence Olivier was directing it, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then came the PBS chronicle Marie Curie before she plunged into Piaf.

These days Lapotaire is viewing her own Vie en Rose from a stunning $2,500-a-month Greenwich Village duplex shared with Rowan and his nanny. Her schedule has reduced her social life to visits with theater cronies like Glenda Jackson and Jim Dale ("the Brits," she calls them) and picnics with Rowan, now a private school third grader. But Lapotaire relishes the subtle joys of being a homebody, having studied so intensely a self-destructive legend. "Piaf always wanted to have the buzz she got onstage offstage as well," says Jane. "You know, it's hard to have that adulation and then go home and boil an egg."

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