- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

All the enraptured foreigners are at your feet. We hurry toward you, Paris.

from the libretto of “La Vie Parisienne,” Act II

If Paris were as carefree and energetic as portrayed in the Opera Comique’s version of Jacques Offenbach’s “La Vie Parisienne,” the City of Light would be perpetually flooded with Americans.

Barring that, lovers of French capital style can bathe in the ingenuity and talent of the 60-strong cast onstage through the weekend at the Kennedy Center Opera House — and revel in some nudity as well. Ah, oui, more than a soupcon of that. At Tuesday’s opening-night performance, even French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte admitted that the version here was a tad more risque than one he had seen back home not long ago.

“After all the fuss about Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl, I hope people won’t be too upset,” Mr. Levitte said.

He needn’t have worried. Most of the audience was familiar enough with French musical comedy to know that disrobing was completely in tune with the plot. Belles poitrines and pert derrieres were only to be expected as courtesans, coquettes and chorines — several nude above the waist — pranced and preened throughout.

The antics were so boisterous and rambunctious, in fact, that as part of a droll script, seen in English supertitles above the stage, a character at one point commented about a live rabbit presented to him on a serving dish. “That’s Paris for you. Even the rabbit is naked.”

“The show brings back the fantasies so many people have about this city of love, of food, of champagne — that you have to wonder if it was ever really like that,” said Ina Ginsburg, one of Washington’s more cosmopolitan hostesses, as she sipped from a flute of Perrier-Jouet at a small post-performance party attended by VIP guests including Bill Nitze; Jerrold and Leona Schecter; Lolo Sarnoff; Diana and Richard McLellan; French Embassy cultural attache Roland Celette; and the ambassadors of Italy, the Netherlands, Bolivia and Morocco.

After the cast swept in to chat with admiring guests, Jerome Savery, the company’s artistic director, noted that the musical extravaganza was a comic period piece from the 1860s — “really old Europe” — when Offenbach set out deliberately to offend audiences of his day.

“I think America is perhaps getting a bit too prudish,” he remarked when asked about the current outcry over Miss Jackson’s exposed breast. It seemed rather foolish, he added, to be required to publish a program advisory warning the public about the sight of bare skin in his production. However, as the father of a 3-year-old daughter and the proud great-grandson of former New York Gov. Frank W. Higgins, even he wouldn’t mind seeing some restraint on daytime TV, when kiddies might be watching. “La Vie Parisienne,” by contrast, is a children’s show, he said.

The athleticism of the production was far more impressive to behold. “Every member of the cast can dance, sing and act … and, if possible, be an acrobat,” Mr. Savery said, noting proudly that the French can-can “is somewhere between dance and sport; it breaks the body.”

Audience reaction Tuesday was wildly friendly, even if cast members were at first apprehensive about how they would be received by Americans after a surge of anti-French sentiment over the war in Iraq.

Martial Defontaine, one of the leads, was among those impressed by the applause and ovations. “It’s the same here as in Paris,” he acknowledged. “Offenbach gives so much pleasure that you just can’t fail.”

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