New York has a spiegeltent, pitched in Times Square. Las Vegas has both "Absinthe" and "Zumanity," each Strip show offering arty, athletic, mildly shocking eroticism for the pleasure-seeking refugee from the quotidian hinterlands. But until this week, the Euro-influenced trend of the intimate, salacious, sensual, comedic, omnisexual tented circus mostly has passed Chicago by, afeared, perchance, of our sequin-busting, meat-and-potatoes reputation.
Hooey. This is the town that supported the nighterie Chez Paree for almost three decades and nurtured the early years of the Cirque du Soleil. Based on the fevered vocal response afforded the plethora of glistening torsos on view close up in "La Soiree" on Saturday night — in a tent pitched on the site of the aptly named (for this occasion) Freedom Center — it seems many a fevered Midwestern soul craves a little Saturday-night beefcake.
That's especially true when, as in the closing act of this show, the rippling goods are presented for one's pleasure, splashy and effervescently playful, in a claw-footed bathtub.
There is something for all tastes and sexual preferences. So let the evidence show that some buttoned-down business persons are quite willing to find temporary room on their laps for a large and operatic gentleman from across the pond who goes by the name of Le Gateau Chocolat.
Let it further show that no one headed for the exits when one Susannah Martinez removed all her clothes in service of an act involving a vanishing hanky. (Other performers remain at least partially dressed.) Such disappearances are tricky to pull off when nude, but Martinez is quite resourceful.
So is one Amy G., who plays the kazoo in a manner I'd venture you've never seen it played.
A disclosure: Tribune Co., which publishes this newspaper, is a full, revenue-sharing producing partner with the Riverfront Theater, which is presenting "La Soiree" in Chicago.
This should be more than enough information for you to know to leave the kids and the easily offended at home. But for the adult, circus-loving, open-minded and (perhaps ideally) refreshed somewhat in advance, "La Soiree" is very impressive. (It is animal-free — audience aside — arriving here from Montreal and heading next to Sydney.) Despite all of the above, it's careful not to fully cross that fine line into the purely tawdry, and most of its shamelessly erotic appeal is derived from genuinely impressive feats of physical beauty and strength. The acts certainly are bizarre, but they're also intensely skilled and creative.
Among the more compelling performers are a pair of hand-balancers called The English Gents (aka the superb Denis Lock and Hamish McCann), who bust out of their pinstripes.
There's also the London-based Bret Pfister, one the few men you'll ever see doing an aerial hoop act (and, frankly, some of the formidable contortions he achieves here are much harder for a man), and a Ukrainian hula-hooper named Yulia Pykhtina, whose timely gyrations are, in their way, quite hypnotic. In between, an unusually retro clown named Mooky secures a man from the audience to assist her with Shakespeare.
The key to these kinds of shows, and I've seen more than my share, lies in how the acts are chosen and curated, and this is a small but very fine international slate of circus pros and neovaudevillians, with strong specialty acts like Nate Cooper, a juggler and balancer whose brilliant routines rely on his apparent incompetence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"La Soiree" (unlike the much harder-edge "Absinthe," where the audience is subjected to a barrage of insults) also comes with a much warmer and more inclusive atmosphere than many shows of this kind, which can tend to crack the whip in your direction.
Not here. The mostly smiling performers — they call themselves a dysfunctional family — are anxious to please, the atmosphere is approachable, if you dare, and the ambience apt for a hot summer night when anything might happen, or you wish it still could.
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $39-$85 at 888-556-9484 or riverfronttheater.com