The Théâtre du Gymnase Marie Bell is one of the many theaters on the grands boulevards in Paris — and no doubt one of the oldest, having been built in the early 19th century and inaugurated in 1820. From the outside it doesn’t show its age, particularly, but inside it gives a spooky feeling of faded elegance, as though the elaborately decorated balconies with their carved figures, bare light bulbs and threadbare upholstery hadn’t been renovated or even dusted for the past two centuries. The electric lighting was a later addition, of course, but the theater had gas lighting as early as 1823.
The name Gymnase has always struck me as being rather mysterious. It resembles the English word gymnasium, meaning an indoor sports hall, or the German word Gymnasium (with different G and a sounds), meaning a kind of secondary school like a French lycée, but neither of these would seem to have any obvious connection to a theater.
It turns out, however, that there really was a school connection, because the theater was originally intended for the training of students from the nearby National Drama Academy (Conservatoire), which is how it got its name.
As for Marie Bell, she was a famous actress, a tragédienne, who served as the director of the theater from 1962 until her death in 1985. After her death, her name was added to the name of the theater, following the example of the Athénée, which adopted the name Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet after the death of its long-time director in 1951.
The show I saw in the Théâtre du Gymnase Marie Bell was a sort of revue featuring highlights from three of the nearly one hundred operettas (known at the time as Offenbachiades) by the composer and entrepreneur Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).
Since it was August, when most Parisians are out of town, there were only about eighty of us in the audience. We all would have easily fit into the smaller Théâtre du Petit-Gymnase down in the basement, but the stage down there would have been too small for the six singers, four dancers and five musicians who were in the show. So it was held in the main auditorium, with only a tenth of the 800 seats filled and the four upper balconies closed off.
The songs were strung together by a series of spoken sketches which were no doubt intended to be hilariously funny. One of the singers was dressed up like Jacques Offenbach, complete with his monocle that he held up to one eye, and the story line was that he was being interviewed on a well-known French television show, where he revealed that everything in his operettas had actually happened to him in real life.
If this doesn’t sound like a promising story line, don’t worry, it wasn’t. I kept thinking of Molly’s recurring line in the 1940s radio series Fibber Magee and Molly: “’Tain’t funny, Magee.”
When I go to French comedies I can always tell when something is really funny, because I can understand nearly everything — up to but not including the punch line. This is because to get a laugh they try to say something unexpected, which is fine except that it deprives us poor foreigners of the usual clues that we rely on to figure out what is going on. But in this particular show there weren’t so many laughs, so I didn’t feel as left out as I usually do.
Of the six singers, at least three or four were veterans, with singing careers that had begun decades earlier, in the 1980s or 90s. As an older person myself, I was really rooting for these singers, since I’m always glad to see people of my age group staying active.
Unfortunately, a professional singing career is not something that can be prolonged indefinitely. Even excellent singers who have taken good care of their voices eventually reach a point where it’s time to stop singing and start doing something else, like teaching or stage-directing or writing their memoirs or whatever. There are lots of great things for us older folks to do, but prancing around the stage trying to sing Offenbach’s greatest hits is not one of them.
The four dancers, on the other hand, were young women who could have been the daughters or grand-daughters of the singers. I found the dancers annoying at first, because they had to say and do ridiculous things in the sketches between the songs. One of them had to burst into tears at the slightest provocation, which was supposed to be some sort of running gag but fell flat like most of the other gags.
Fortunately, there were four sequences in the show where the dancers were allowed to shut up and dance, and this they did very well, in four different dance styles, from classical ballet in the first sequence to a lengthy can-can performance at the end. For me, the dancers were the ones who saved the show.
Since the program booklet did not include a song list, I amused myself during the show by trying to identify the songs and remember which Offenbachiade they came from. The first one was easy, because it was Il nous faut de l’amour (We need love), one of my favorite songs from La belle Hélène. (Here’s how Gaëlle Arquez sang it at the Châtelet in 2015.) The next song was one I recognized from La Péricole, and soon another one came up from La belle Hélène, namely Dis-moi Vénus.
(Tell me Venus, what pleasure do you take in causing the downfall of virtue like this?)
If only the songs had been sung a bit better, they would have been fine.
Location, aerial view and photos of the Théâtre du Gymnase Marie Bell on monumentum.fr.
My photos and text in this post are from 2019.