Paris: City Of Oh-La-La Cabaret Spectacle

Paris – Paris, City of Lights, Amour, Museums, and grand architecture is also the City of Spectacular Cabaret and home to the can-can, which thrives to this very day.

It began in the 1860s with the music hall that gave birth to the Folies-Bergere, 32 rue Richer, famed for Art Nouveau posters, jaw dropping costumes by Ertè, ballet pantomimes, and lavish tableaux and frequented by Zola, Manet, and Toulouse-Lautrec. It maintains a lavish theatre, but in 2006 reverted to concert programming and musicals, including Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Gipsy Kings, John Cameron, and Stephen Clark’s Zorro. Another fabled cabaret, the Casino de Paree, 16 Rue de Clichy, has gone the concert and special attractions route of the Folies.

But spectacle lives on at the Moulin Rouge, Lido de Paris, and Pardis Latin.

Moulin Rouge

Established in 1889, as “The palace of the dance and women,” the cabaret in the heart of [now] seedy Montmartre, at 82 Rue de Clichy, claimed to be “more luxurious, bigger, and more elegant” than those that existed, and with  its huge windmill, it became a beacon for locals for romantic rendezvous and a must for tourists. It’s the mecca where Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized the French cancan. It still is performed by the Doriss Girls, which have included Jane Avril, muse of Toulouse-Lautrec, in the long-running revue Fèerie.

The show features a cast of 100 global artists, which includes singers, variety acts, and 60 women, performing twice every evening in the grand tradition of the French music-hall. Showgirls wear elaborate headdresses and hundreds of costumes of every imaginable kind of feathers, Swarovski crystals, and sequins [created in their own shops with a staff of 30].

Féerie, which will celebrate 18 years in December, was two years and millions in the making – nine million euros on costumes alone. 

According to public relations manager Fanny Rabasse, “We are the long-run champion, akin to Broadway’s Chicago, Les Miserables, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera. We keep the show fresh, and, with our large backstage staff, are always making new costumes when dry-cleaning is not enough. The costumes are the most important part of the show, not the lack of them. We welcome children from age six. Some dancers are topless, but always with feathers and jewelry. So, it’s not shocking. From beginning to end, it’s the same show. Only the dancers, singers, and acts change.”

You might think that after so long a run, with no immediate plans for a new revue, Parisians don’t come. “The reverse is true,” says Mademoiselle Rabasse. “I recall when our audiences were 70% tourist. Now, it’s 50%. In 2015, which was a bad year for France, we had 60% French. Tourists were afraid, but the natives wanted to show resolve and were not afraid to go out.”

The show “pays tribute to Parisian women throughout the years,” with various music genres. Music is no longer live, but the original score and cancan music were recorded by 80 musicians and a 60-member chorus. The stage is not exceptionally deep, and because the building is almost 130 years old, the roof cannot be raised to accommodate flies.

Among centerpieces are a giant aquarium, pirate ship, a “Gorgon” [think Medusa] in her temple surrounded by pythons, and a circus that comes to life with clowns, tantalizing [human] tigresses, Siamese twins, acrobats, jugglers, and miniature horses. Then, of course, comes the most-anticipated moment: the cancan.

Shows have been created since the 60s by Doris Haug, a German woman who joined the company in 1957 and went on to become its first ballet mistress – thus, the Doriss Girls, and Ruggero Angeletti. Since 1997, ballet mistress Janet Pharaoh, now also artistic director, travels the world to recruit dancers of both sexes. Choreography is by Bill Goodson, famed for his artistry throughout Europe and who’s worked with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Gloria Estefan.

Dancer criteria includes classical ballet training, with the height requirement for women at least 5’8”, and 6’3” for the men. Weight and hair length are carefully monitored.

Except for such occasions as the 2015 visit to New York for a performance in Times Square for a Best of France fashion event, the Moulin Rouge stays in Paris. It doesn’t tour because it would be impossible to duplicate the physical plant and staging. “The Moulin Rouge is the stars,” says Mademoiselle Rabasse.

Because of tiers, there are no bad sightlines among the tables seating 900. As always, the closer and more expensive choices are best.

There are two dinner menus by executive chef David Le Quellec, a veteran of several Michelin-starred restaurants, which include vegetarian and vegan choices. The list of Champagnes, wines, and cocktails is vast. Dinner is optional. Show-only ticket holders are admitted an hour after the doors open. Attire: smart dress-casual to formal. There is dancing to a small orchestra until showtime. For more information, visit www.moulin-rouge.com.

Lido de Paris

Established on the Champs-Elysées some 70 years ago, the Lido became the chief rival to the Moulin Rouge. Now, in an elegant, state-of-the-art venue at 116 Avenue des Champs-Elysées, the heart of the boulevard, it attracts over a half million annually for nightly shows and matinees.

There has long been name-recognition for the Lido in the States because in Vegas in the pre-Cirque du Soleil days, from 1955-1992, Donna Arden duplicated the review at the Stardust.

The Lido has long featured the long-limbed Bluebell Girls, an ensemble founded by Irish native and émigré to the U.K. Margaret Kelly, who until her retirement in 1986, hand-selected each dancer. Mainly performing high precision and semi-burlesque numbers, the 45 global dancers are noted for their statuesque height, averaging 5’11”. There are only 10 Belles, who go topless.

They are hand-picked from all over the world by ballet mistress British native Jane Sansby, to headline in $40,000-$50,000 outfits created on site by a large crew to sparkle with Swarovski crystals and sequins and the requisite feathered headdresses. Among the cast are two Americans, a Belle; and a male, who’s a principle dancer.

Rigorous dancing requires specific qualities both artistic and physical, so the selection process must be very focused. Then, there a training period, sometimes up to five weeks, and rehearsals are frequent.

According to Sansby, Bluebells, Bells, and the six soloists [usually at least or close to 6’ tall] work two shows nightly, at 9 and 11. While there’s not an alternate cast, there’s an ensemble of swings to cover days off and holidays. “It’s a well-oiled machine,” she says. “It’s a machine that turns and has to turn seven days. There’s a lot of planning to make sure we have covers.”

A former Lido trademark, other than the huge finale cancan, was a tracked ceiling where all manner of props and artists sailed over the heads of thousands of audience members. That’s all gone.

In 2006, the Lido was purchased by Sodexo Sports & Loisirs (Leisure), which also owns the Bateaux boats cruising the Seine and numerous brands and services in 80 countries. In December 2014, the venue closed for three months for a 25-million Euro reinvention. 

“For three years,” says Sodexo GM and Lido president Nathalie Belton-Szabo, “I traveled the world seeing shows with only one goal in mind: the creation of one that would delight spectators and make them dream. Each time I used the word ‘Lido,’ I saw the sparkles in people’s eyes. The hard part was to create a new and unique revue.”

That led to meeting Franco Dragone, the Belgian-Italian theater director who, with his company, created shows for Disneyland Paris, several editions of Cirque du Soleil, such as O at Vegas’ Bellagio, and, also in Vegas, Celine Dion’s A New Day and the Wynn’s Le Rève.

“Franco shared the same love for the Lido as I do,” Mademoiselle Belton-Szabo adds. “After studying 26 editions, he invented our gem. Paris Merveilles [Wonders] has Bluebells, feathers, sequins, music, amazing dance, and a first class kitchen. Everything that makes the soul of the Lido remains, but it has been infused with a daring boldness, extravagance, and surprises.”

To take advantage of the panoramic width of the room, there are five HD LED screens, the largest of which covers the up-stage entirety, whose projections transport audiences to numerous Paris fantasies – one of the most impressive is the opening tour of Paris. And, for the first time in Lido’s history, a singer is at the heart of the revue, Manon [Trinquier], the mezzo-soprano discovered on the 2014 French The Voice, where she reached the semi-finals.

Says Dragone, “To create my first show in Paris at such a legendary cabaret, was demanding. It was the sort of challenge that forces you to push and surprise yourself in order to captivate audiences. I put my dreams, heart, and soul into the seven wonders of Paris Merveilles. My goal was not only to catch the eye but also touch the soul of and bring joy to each spectator in a world that is increasingly disenchanted.”

The Bluebells and Belles [choreographed by Benoit-Swan Pouffer] and a 15-strong male ensemble do 90-minute shows, no intermission. There’re 600 costumes tailor-made by Nicolas Vaudelet, former associate of Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix, some with optical effects — featuring feathers, rhinestones, rich fabrics, and top quality furs that cost thousands of euros. Trivia: over 200 pounds of ostrich feathers, dyed pink, are hand-fastened to the petticoats of the 27 cancan dancers. There are also haute-couture gowns and male and feminine tuxedos. There are 22 dressers for quick changes. Sets are by Oscar and Emmy-nominated and two-time [French] César winner Jean Rabasse.

A visit backstage with technical director Frederic Bacquet and service supervisor Minh Ma Van, in charge of hydraulic effects, is beyond mind-boggling. They make the ice rink for skaters, pool of dancing fountains, and 16½’ beauties-laden chandelier made up of 40,000 pearls emerge from the depths; and the monumental Art Nouveau staircase descends from the flies for the parade of Bluebells. If you are among those in premium seating, your rows descend to floor level, so you are right onstage with the dancers, singers, and acrobats.

Van is also in charge of raising and lowering the “magical” 45-instrument mechanical orchestra which provides pre-show dance music. The show score, infused with dozens of musical styles by Yvan Cassar and Belgian singer Saule, is pre-recorded.

For tickets, schedules, photos, and more information, visit wwe.lido.fr.

Paradis Latin

This celebrated Parisian variety and burlesque cabaret on the Rive Gauche, 28 rue de Cardinal Lemoine, the only one located on the Left Bank is the entertainment gem of the Latin Quarter and only two blocks to the Seine and incredible views of Notre Dame. The new review, in its second year, is as steeped in glamour and sex appeal as it is in history.

Designed by Gustave Eiffel – yes, that Eiffel – and now fully restored after a long ago closure, Paradis Latin is a landmark. It dates back to 1803 when it was authorized by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte [However, the foundation dates to 13th Century, when it was constructed over the ancient walls of Paris – built by King Philippe Auguste. In 1870, during the Franco Prussian War, the theatre and entire 5th Arrondissement were torched to the ground.

Seven years later, Eiffel did a complete restoration while he was building the Eiffel Tower. When it reopened in 1887, it was considered the most elegant hall in Paris.

The Paradis Latin has a special place, unique among the cabarets of Paris. It withstood the vagaries of French history, from the time of Napoleon to its surprising and well-deserved renaissance in the 20th Century.  

In the late 60s, it fell into disrepair, and the property was about to be transformed into apartments when Eiffel’s metal structure was uncovered along with scenery, paintings, gilt columns, and posters.

The showplace had a multi-million dollar renaissance in 1977, with its glory restored. Paradis Latin is operated with strong historic and hands-on devotion by the Israel family: father, Sidney; and son, Harold.

The authenticity of this legendary cabaret seems to infuse the welcoming personnel with a real sense of pride and belonging.  

Though smaller in size than the Moulin Rouge and Lido, Paradis Latin’s show is in many ways more fun, more exciting, and more audience friendly – not to mention being a bit easier on the wallet.

The stage may not be Cinerama-width, but there’s no shortage of talent: 35 dancers, singers, a juggler, aerial acrobat, contortionists, and Busby Berkeley-inspired moments. There’s a roving camp comic entertaining and teasingly provoking in the 10-minute pre-show, then 15 scenes.

The troupe of 35 execute sexy burlesque sketches that range from performers as roses and gardeners to a take on Romeo and Juliet, motorcycle babes, pom-pom girls, and a lavish tribute to romance, Paradis d’Amour. The 15 numbers proceed at breakneck speed. The energetic cancan is pure French and so well-staged and executed it would please Toulouse-Lautrec.

Costuming, where there are costumes, is ultra glam and colorfully done with feathers, rhinestones, wigs, and elaborate headdresses. There’s nothing Paradis Latin can’t do on its stage – and it’s sans computers. Yes, the show goes on the old-fashioned way with stagehands as the computers.

That said, there are some jaw-dropping surprises, such as an aerialist descending from the balcony on a trapeze.

In a departure from other burlesque cabarets, there’s brief nudity from a very hunky male ensemble frolicking in a locker room; and, in a throwback to the old music hall days, the waiters appear in a walk-on.

The dapper, dressed-to-the-nines master of ceremony reels off his patter in three languages. Chanteuse Natalie’s songs are a mix of French and English.

There’s one 90 minute show per evening. Dinner service at four-tops and long tables for groups are excellent, but you can come for just drinks and the show.

For reservations, schedule, pricing or to book Paradis Latin for special events, visit www.paradislatin.com.


ellis-nassour

Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline. He can be reached at ENassour@aol.com

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