At some point following the first intermission in Femme Fatale—the Can Can's new summer show—an audience member named Gordon has undone the second button on his piercingly orange polo shirt. Gordon is a seated right beside the stage and has become the MC’s favorite for crowd work. He almost seems like an audience plant, so ideal and willing he is, a very game fish out of water.
Later on—after the MC has proclaimed that things are about to get really weird (he does this a lot)—Gordon will reappear in a pull-over cat hood, along with that MC, and join in, tamely, on the dancing. And that is Femme Fatale in a nutshell: It espouses a lot of dirty dreams and erudite inspiration but largely plays out as a spirited, goofy, deftly danced night out.
Before all this you slip into the market’s not-so-seedy underbelly and squeeze into your seat. You can order food or drinks, and during the show, servers dart between performers to deliver them. Soon JonnyBoy, the MC and one of the show’s four dancers, takes the stage in velvet blazer, his brow gleaming with sweat and glitter.
JonnyBoy stipples his banter with a lot of “fucks” and easy sex jokes, but it’s all mild and amiable for anyone unscandalized in a room with nearly naked dancers. He asks a couple how long they’ve been together. Five years, they say. “Have you had sex yet?” Another table gets reticent about their jobs. Hey, he quips, “I’m a stripper.”
The show’s namesake femme fatale, he explains, is the Mata Hari, a Dutch burlesque dancer. She then became a WWI spy and was eventually executed by a French firing squad. JonnyBoy introduces her as both “an amazing woman who paved the way for modern feminism” and “pretty much the queen of cultural appropriation.” And that’s about the extent you’ll learn about her in the proceeding 90 minutes.
Soon Prom Queen—Seattle musician Celene Ramadan—enters and sings the night’s score, a collaboration between her and the Can Can's in-house writing team, Chris Pink and Dave Pezzner. Her musical backing is largely pumped in (yes, sigh, canned) and veers between grinding burlesque (what sounds like a brassy Tom Waits sample crops up) and balladry. She’s supposedly the Mata Hari, but Ramadan largely hangs out on a couch singing, or maybe strolls around with a guitar. At her most engaged she sings while standing over a fan wearing a huge white skirt, like a campy yet serious Marylin Monroe. Aside from that she rarely feels like a part of the choreography, and any story here evaporates amid the show’s frenzy. It’s hard to glean plot points from song lyrics when men clad only in sequined thongs literally swing from the rafters above your head.
(I can’t help but imagine an alternate show, in which Prom Queen and a band set up in a corner offer soundtrack to the dancers. Last year’s album Doom-Wop, with its Nancy Sinatra 60s surf vibes—and generally stronger writing—would be an ideal fit for this room’s velveteen underground.)
The dancers themselves (two male, two female) are admirably gymnastic and some of their set pieces—like when a pair twirl on a giant metal circle, or do an interpretive dance bit through a flowing curtain—are beautiful. But others, an intimate male-female dance piece over a table, feel like Dirty Dancing outtakes. And all of it—the pretty balladry and grinding bits and goofy, Johnny Boy interludes—never quite coheres: Dances here just end, transitionless, and then the next begins. A clapperboard to mark shifts wouldn’t feel out of place.
But all of that, in the end, doesn’t matter too much. The spirit of the night is convivial and inclusive—little here feels like a leer—and at a cabaret, that spirit overrides the clunks in concept and orchestration.