By Zach Freeman
There are very few theatrical venues in the world that can boast anything like the history, cachet and all-around tourist-centric sexiness of Moulin Rouge, now celebrating its 125th (!) anniversary. With that in mind my wife and I made our way to the iconic red windmill at the intersection of Rue Lepic and Boulevard de Clichy in the Montmarte district a few weeks ago, expanding our trip to Paris to include the latest offering from “the most famous cabaret in the world.”
Entitled simply “Féerie” (Fairy), it turns out that this production—which has been running since the end of 1999—is every bit as flashy, ephemeral, evocative and simple as the name implies. For clarity’s sake I should add that by “simple” I just mean “nearly plotless”—with 1,000 costumes, eighty dancers, six horses and five pythons (yes, you read those last two correctly)—this show is anything but simple in the technical sense. But more on that in a bit.
Entering the historical eighteenth arrondissement theater through a throng of camera-toting tourists and fellow attendees is a theatrical experience in itself. The bright red carpet and brighter lights successfully immerse you as you check in and are guided to your table. (With 900 seats, it’s no surprise that they don’t trust you to find your way alone.) The space is set up like a massive, two-story restaurant, allowing for customers booking 7pm tickets to eat dinner before the 9pm show. Since we opted for the 9pm show, we arrived at our table post-dinner and were promptly greeted with glasses of champagne.
The finishing may be elegant but like other theaters of its kind, the layout is rather cramped—with more than 600,000 attendees a year, you can bet they know how to cram you into as little space as possible. Still, the dining/drinking-room-cum-audience area is so nice to look at that any annoyance with being tightly packed is quickly forgotten. Especially once the champagne flows and the opening entertainment—a jazzy band—wraps up and the lights dim.
“Féerie” kicks off boldly, with a massive opening number that includes singing (almost entirely lip-synced, if I had to guess), dancing and broad, almost frighteningly aggressive smiling. It’s an impressive and lengthy opener, introducing the audience to the consistently incredible physiques of the troupe; according to official casting, all females must be at least five-foot-eight while men must be taller than six-foot-three. (In addition, they all need “astounding figures that will leave the spectators spellbound.” Mission accomplished.). The result is dozens of perfectly bodied, impeccable dancers lining the stage and switching from costume to costume as the sets evolve from number to number.
There’s a hint of cirque-type feats with a duo of roller skaters, a bit of circus with the previously mentioned horses (they’re mini horses, but still) and a heavy dose of WTF with an aquarium filled with forty tons of water, five pythons and a topless woman. The message here is clear: If you can’t be entertained while drinking champagne and watching a nearly naked woman swimming in a giant aquarium filled with pythons… fuck you. But there’s more than just dancing, partial nudity and on-stage animals in this nearly 120-minute extravaganza: there’s an acrobatic trio, a lengthy clowning segment with audience participation that highlights the international nature of the audience and an odd cover band that sings such classics as “I Will Survive.” There’s a little bit of everything.
But that little bit of everything also means that “Féerie” has no throughline, no real theme to hold onto (aside from the display of lovely boobies, which is a theme that many in the audience clearly connect with). As scenes change and scenery transforms, we see dancing jockeys, pirates vs. ladies, panthers vs. soldiers, the famous French can-can, circus clowns, Russian dancers, siamese twins and even a dancing medusa (a taste of the snake-filled aquarium to come). It’s all eye-popping and (mostly) captivating, despite a vague sense of hollow, (pre-Hollywood) superficiality.
Still, when was the last time you watched a talented dancer strut across a stage topless and straight into a tank full of snakes while sitting around a dining table with a group of people dressed to the nines? If that’s something you’d like to add to your list of life experiences, this is a touristy no-brainer.
There are also some pretty good dance numbers in here too.
Moulin Rouge, 82 boulevard de Clichy, Paris, France, 33 (0)1 53 09 82 82, moulinrouge.com. €102-215. Open Run.