For romantics, no visit to the city of lights would be complete without a night at the original Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris. Built in 1889, the club was the essence of a bohemian, Belle Epoque Paris, where artists converged to produce and attend colorful and avant-garde performances. The Moulin Rouge in Paris has inspired scores of Hollywood homages, the most recent being director Baz Luhrman’s 2001 glitz fest starring Nicole Kidman. It also provided inspiration for 19th-century painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose iconic portraits of Moulin Rouge performers are today housed in Paris’ Musee d’Orsay.
Spectacular Display...Or Dull Cliche?
For all its glamorous past, the current offering at The Moulin Rouge is often dismissed as being a mediocre, mass-produced affair, with a gaudy, contrived performance that does not justify the overpriced entry fee. But when three of my guests expressed their interest in the show, curiosity got the better of me. Without further ado, here are some of the pros and cons of an evening out at the cabaret.
- Plush, spacious venue evoking turn-of-the-century Paris
- Talented performers
- Authentic cabaret feel
- Long lines, despite reservation
- Overly touristy
- Nudity may be offensive to some
Reserving and Settling In
When I phone up to make a reservation for the show two days before, I am told the show is fully booked that weekend: a surprise given we’re in off-peak season (December). The friendly receptionist advises me to try again the day of the show as cancellations are apparently frequent. Taking her advice, we secure a table for the Friday night show (without dinner) at 11pm. We arrive, as suggested, a half-hour early and I momentarily regret the decision. The mile-long queue on the wet and windy boulevard shows no sign of moving and the demographic is mostly weary tourists.
However, a half hour later, we are ushered to our table and I am instantly transported to late 19th century bohemian Paris. The plush décor and dim lighting creates a decadent ambiance and much of the romance is still present in the club. Toulouse Lautrec might have difficulty recognizing it, but we are suitably impressed and sip our champagne, which is part of the deal (two bottles for four people).
Read Related: Top Traditional Cabarets in Paris
The Show Begins
The show opens with spectacular fanfare. Girls are dressed in skimpy beaded costumes while the guys wear silver suits. The scene is dramatic and aesthetically assaulting, but not for the prudish—the initial semi-nudity of the female dancers sets the tone for the entire show. While the score is of an undefinable "European" nature, the music’s lyrics are all in French.
Dancing acts are the main feature of the Moulin Rouge, but the circus element soon rears its head as we are entertained by some fairly dazzling acrobatics. Performers’ moves are impressive but we sensed a weariness in some of the actions – probably a result of the three-shows-a-day schedule. The dancers seem tired too, but only to the trained eye of my thespian companion.
Circus gimmicks continue with the presence of clowns, jugglers and a talented ventriloquist, who succeeds in livening up an otherwise subdued (and travel-weary) audience. He chooses four participants of different nationality from the crowd, which seemed rehearsed but apparently spontaneous.
The faultless choreography traces various periods in history, whirling us through the Mayans to the Egyptians to the 1940s, complete with swing dancers – all presented in a vibrant display of colorful costumes and upbeat music. We have to wait till near the show’s end for the traditional French cancan, though, where the high kicks are immersed in a sea of tricolor.
The show achieves some spectacular moments. About halfway through, the stage gives way to a tank of water, where a female performer swims with snakes. And the larger-than life finale is distinguished by furry pink costumes.
Practical Information: Location, Contacts & How to Book
- Address: 82 boulevard de Clichy, 18th arrondissement
- Tel.: +33 (0) 153.098.282
- Metro: Blanche (line 2)
- Reservations: These are highly recommended, especially during peak season when seats sell out quickly. You can also reserve a basic dinner and show package here: (book direct via Isango). For an all-inclusive package including a dinner and show at the MR with a tour of the Eiffel Tower.
- Ticket prices: See current prices and reserve seats here
- Dinner menus: French Cancan Menu; Toulouse-Lautrec Menu; Belle Époque Menu; Lunch menu (vegetarian options available). To see current menu prices, visit this page at the official website.
- Dress code: Neat, semiformal to formal attire is required (no sneakers, t-shirts and jeans, shorts, etc.)
- Payment Options: Cash and all major credit cards are accepted
- Visit the official website (in English)
- Other: Photography, smoking, drinks and food purchased outside the venue are forbidden
My Final Word
Clichés abound at the current Moulin Rouge show and some may find it at best outdated and at worst offensive. To be fair, though, it never claims to be anything other than a flamboyant throwback to the original Moulin Rouge cabaret. For an edgier cabaret, you may want to try the Champs Elysees-based Lido, a favorite among Parisians. As a skeptic, I found the Moulin flashy, kitsch and very tourist-oriented, but still a highly enjoyable and worthwhile evening. If you’re not put off by long lines and tourist fare, the Moulin Rouge is a one-off and memorable experience.