PARIS — A song-through musical about Noah’s Ark, with life-sized mechanical animals and a multiethnic cast of performers singing in French is no easy theatrical task to pull off, but that is precisely what French popstar crooner Essaï Altounian accomplished in 2020-21.
Based on the Biblical story of Noah and how he is said to have repopulated the Earth, the 2020 “Noé ou La Force de Vivre” ran for over several months at the legendary Hippodrome de Longchamps in the Bois de Boulogne, in the French capital.
The musical takes place after the great flood that many archeologists believe may have actually occurred sometime over 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia or present-day Iraq. It’s a story that has something for everyone. As told in the Old Testament and now recounted by Altounian and his cast, the flood serves as a parable of sorts for rebirth and cunning in the face of natural disaster. But Essaï also staged his story in a contemporary context, in light of the environmental challenges that we are facing on Earth, with increased pollution and global warming seemingly progressing unabated around the globe. As he told one French TV reporter: “The Earth doesn’t need humans to survive, but humans need the Earth to survive.” Hence the need to get out this preservationist message to the general public and remind them that we are headed for disaster if we don’t quickly change gears and protect what has been bequeathed to us on the Big Blue Marble we all call home.
The songs in “Noé” are catchy, and the cast delivers them with brio, though they are not quite as easily memorable perhaps as the songs in “The Lion King,” which relies on similar mechanisms to move story and songs forward: puppetry, the relationship between humans and other creatures of the Earth, a patriarch who saves his kingdom. As for the muscular, sometimes-bare-chested Essaï, he looks more like an Olympic swimmer than the patriarch Noah whom he depicts in the lead role — at least as we remember him in the Old Testament — but that is a small quibble. Along with fellow actors Yanis Siad, Julien Vital, and Jade Boinet, Essaï delivers memorable tunes that have you tapping your feet and smiling throughout, particularly the lead song “Terre”: “O Terre/ Les hommes sont fiers/L’amour te sauvera” (“O Earth/Men are proud/Love will save the day”) There’s also an amazing Kochari in one segment, a reference to the fact that the Ark is said to have landed in Armenia at the foot of Mount Ararat, in a nod as well to Altounian’s Armenian origins.
Even the briefest conversation or Zoom interview with Essaï reveals a very French desire to seduce the listener. It’s not the worst quality to have in a performer—and one that promises more success for this talented, strong-willed Parisian star.