|By MERVYN ROTHSTEIN
Send in the pythons.
There are five of them, swimming in a giant 40-ton aquarium tank with a beautiful and svelte topless dancer – one of 60 Doriss Girls who, often bare-breasted, gracefully adorn the stage in Féerie, the lavish, fast-paced, precision-directed and consummately entertaining show at Paris’ legendary Moulin Rouge cabaret. The women are gorgeous and dance beautifully, but it’s the giant snakes that earn the evening’s biggest and loudest gasps of amazed surprise.
The post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne famously said, “With an apple, I will astonish Paris.” Well, there are moments when Féerie astonishes.
The showgirls are accompanied by 20 male Doriss Dancers (bare-chested only for the finale), 800 pairs of shoes, and 1,000 costumes adorned with rhinestones, sequins and feathers. The feathers are of many colors – you name the color, it’s probably onstage – and many types: ostrich, goose, rooster, rhea, heron, guinea fowl, golden pheasant and more.
The show features superb acrobats. Two balance gracefully in many permutations in a rolling hoop, and two balance themselves in feats of strength, performing to Gene Kelly and “Singing in the Rain.” And a juggler who uses his mouth as well as his hands. And six adorable mini-horses. Oh, and clowns. You can send them in too. (The female clowns, of course, are bare-breasted.)
There’s recorded music with an orchestra of 80 and a chorus of 60. And yes, the high-kicking French Cancan, in costumes of the French tricolor.
It all takes place in a tightly packed but not uncomfortable 900-seat cabaret that is designed to evoke the Belle Époque of the Moulin Rouge’s 1889 birth and that is nestled comfortably among the sex shops and shows of Paris’ slowly gentrifying Pigalle neighborhood, in the 18th Arrondissement, or district, below Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur Church. Despite the neighborhood and all that above-the-waist nudity, Féerie is at heart a family show. (There were several youngsters in the audience the night I was there). There’s nothing salacious or smarmy – or even very erotic – about the evening.
Féerie translates as fairy but also as enchantment, or magical spectacle, or a 19th-century theatrical production known for its fantasy plots and spectacular stage effects. It’s an appropriate name for this 90-minute show. (By the way, the title of every show at Moulin Rouge starting in 1963 with Frou-Frou has begun with the letter F, because of that show’s success.)
The audience sits at tables for two, four or more. And at almost every one is a bottle of Champagne, the cabaret’s official drink, a fitting accompaniment to the evening. An extra 10 euros ($12) per ticket entitles each non-dining guest to a half bottle, and the Moulin Rouge notes that it sells 240,000 bottles a year.
If you’re a film fan or a Francophile, chances are you’ve seen the movies about this historic place: John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge, the screen biography of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (played by Jose Ferrer), the late 19th-century French painter whose artwork, and especially his posters, captured the essence of the cabaret and promoted its early performers; Jean Renoir’s French Cancan, his 1954 tale starring Jean Gabin as the cabaret owner who revives the provocative dance and brings it to worldwide fame; and Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 romantic Moulin Rouge!, about the love between a poet (Ewan McGregor) and the club’s glamorous star (Nicole Kidman).
So if you loved the movies, and love Paris, you should go. Oh, you say, I thought it was just a place for tourists. Well, yes, it is for tourists. The audience – 600,000 visitors a year – is 50 percent French and 50 percent international, the Moulin Rouge says. But it’s more than for vacationers. It also has class.
M. Toulouse-Lautrec of course is no longer around (though his posters adorn part of the lobby), and the great stars of a century ago or more – Jane Avril, La Goulou, Yvette Guilbert, Mistinguett – are distant memories. But the evening is, to sum it up, fun.
The show includes a section about pirates in Indonesia, priestesses, a Gorgon, tigresses – and those pythons. And a visit to the circus, with those acrobats, jugglers, miniature horses – and clowns. And a parade of the Doriss Girls and Dancers (named for the group’s founder). And a tribute to Parisian women, the performance of the Cancan, and post-World War II boogie-woogie. That’s followed by a nod to modernity with some punk rock that might have been better eliminated.
The dancers are delights for the eyes, both the women and the men, so there’s something for all sexes. (Though one woman commented that she wished, for the sake of appreciation, that the men’s chests be more often visible.) There are strict rules of dancer appearance, according to the cabaret’s brochure. The women (many of whom are from Australia, whose population apparently has an easy time achieving the guidelines) must be at least 5'8" and the men 6'3" (short by pro basketball standards but tall enough for most other vocations), and their weight must be strictly maintained. The Moulin Rouge rules allow a variance by only plus or minus 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds).
You can come for dinner at 7. Executive Chef David Le Quellec’s cuisine has given the Moulin Rouge a listing in the influential Gault-Millau guide to the best Paris restaurants. Or just show up for the show at 9 or 11. There are two shows nightly, 365 days a year. And the show is fine for non-French speakers. There’s not much spoken or sung language; the eyes have it.
Sure it’s not cheap (prices vary according to day of week and performance), but in the $1,000-a-ticket Broadway era, price almost seems irrelevant – and the 11 p.m. show is less expensive.
The performance ends with a dance and costume spectacle of lighted wings and bright pink, giant slithery boas – the feathery kind, not the snakes. Pythons are the Moulin Rouge’s only snakes. Go.