In Paris, a Madonna Musical Pays Tribute (in Pink)

In Paris, a Madonna Musical Pays Tribute (in Pink)

Two lovers belting “Open Your Heart.” A misunderstood woman exhorting a roaring audience to “Express Yourself.” A gay wedding extravaganza set to “Like A Prayer.”

No, this isn’t a preview of the stage antics in Madonna’s highly anticipated “Celebration” tour, which starts Saturday in London, at the O2 Arena. In Paris, the French stage director Nathan Guichet has started the party early with “Holidays,” a plucky new musical inspired by the global pop icon.

It’s a wonder no Madonna jukebox musical has made it to the stage until now. Her back catalog brims with highly theatrical songs, and if “Holidays” is any indication, it doesn’t take a big-budget, bells-and-whistles production to get admirers of the pop icon to buy tickets.

This two-hour show, which is set to run at the Alhambra theater through Jan. 28, features just four performers and one (very pink) set.

Guichet has woven 15 Madonna songs into a fictional script performed in French. It is centered on four childhood friends, with somewhat contrived results: A number of twists and turns clearly exist to shoehorn songs into the show. (A character somehow lands in San Pedro, the island mentioned in “La Isla Bonita,” solely to cue Madonna’s 1986 track.) Yet by the end of a recent performance, Parisians were on their feet, fully hung up on Madonna nostalgia.

The French capital is an unlikely setting for the first Madonna musical. Still, the newfound popularity of American-style musicals in France means there is a hunger for new titles, while producing costs are lower than on Broadway. “Holidays” came together in a year or so with a budget hovering around $1 million, according to its lead producer, Stéphane Pontacq. (For comparison, Broadway’s “Jagged Little Pill,” a jukebox musical inspired by the music of Alanis Morissette, was capitalized for up to $14 million in 2019.)

Guichet, who has directed and produced original productions including a ”reimagining of “The Snow Queen,” said in an email that he was inspired by an interview Madonna gave to The Daily Star newspaper in 2012. “I’d sanction my songs to be made into a musical,” she said at the time. “But I wouldn’t do it myself, I don’t think that would interest me.”

“Holidays” premiered just as global curiosity surrounds Madonna, who turned 65 in August. In June, she postponed “Celebration,” her 12th world tour, because of what her manager called a “serious bacterial infection.” The U.S. leg of the tour has now been rescheduled to start in December, following a series of concerts in Europe.

There is little doubt that “Celebration” will be a lavish affair: Delivering a show to remember is what Madonna does, and has been doing consistently for four decades. Part of the challenge, when staging a tribute like “Holidays,” is trying to match her many talents.

It is clear from the singing numbers in “Holidays,” all set to recorded music, that Madonna’s history of gutsy performances has challenge the performers to go above and beyond. The four women who carry the show all have moments of brilliance, and work hard to make the often dubious script shine.

In it, a young heiress who is about to get married, Louise, gathers three friends she hasn’t seen in well over a decade. Their passion for Madonna united the quartet as teenagers, and every year, on Aug. 16, Madonna’s birthday, they would come to mark that special “holiday.”

They reconvene as adults in Louise’s childhood home in a French village, which features a full-on Madonna altar: an eccentric pink bedroom suite designed for the girls by Louise’s doting father, covered in portraits of their idol.

It takes a while for the four characters to gel. Louise, played by Juliette Behar, starts off as a manic pixie blonde, a “Material Girl” proxy with an over-excited delivery. Of her three friends, one, Valentina (Fanny Delaigue), has become a mysterious, provocative star in the United States, not unlike Madonna herself; another, Nikki, is a travel blogger with a history of family abuse. The fourth, Suzanne, is the proverbial underdog, who stayed in their local town and is stuck in underpaid jobs.

Throughout, the main thing the four women have in common is Madonna. What “Holidays” gets right is what the star represents for many women: A sense of freedom and empowerment, the belief that they could break free of existing norms. It quickly becomes clear that Louise and her future husband don’t see eye to eye, and her friends encourage her to think beyond what is expected of her. Similarly, in a nod to Madonna’s longstanding L.G.B.T.Q. activism, a gay romance links two of the four friends, and blossoms movingly with the song “Secret.”

“Holidays” isn’t a Madonna-backed venture. Promotional material for the production names her as infrequently as possible and the playbill’s plot summary only refers to the “famous pop star” who inspired the main characters. Luckily for the producers, it doesn’t take much to telegraph the mystery star’s identity. The poster art for “Holidays” closely mirrors one of Madonna’s best-known portraits, with her head tilted back and eyes closed on the cover of her 1986 album “True Blue.”

Still, as fan tributes go, “Holidays” is a welcome reminder that Madonna’s catalog has rare staying power — and offers space for others to make their mark onstage. As Suzanne, Ana Ka brings serious vocal chops to the table, and lends heart to a character that could easily feel miserabilist.

And the charismatic Nevedya, a budding musical star in France who recently headlined a production inspired by Josephine Baker, takes the role of Nikki and runs with it. A consummate dancer and singer, she brought striking arm flourishes and even a death drop to a “Vogue” number that otherwise felt a little timid, and in her hands, “Papa Don’t Preach” became a powerful plea to a father attempting to clip her wings.

Madonna herself will be in Paris with “Celebration” in November. Until then, “Holidays” is an entertainingly upbeat stand-in.

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Mazhar Paradise65

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