The Pleasure Garden Pops Up
by omar sommereyns
Picture this: a lush dreamland on the outskirts of the Design District, where sensualist flâneurs, exotic performers, and anthropomorphic plants mingle and welcome visitors of all stripes. You can wander, cocktail in hand, soaking in the surreal surroundings, or enter the main tent to witness an atmospheric and visually luscious wraparound show with singers, dancers, acrobats, and sundry entertainers.
This is the world of The Pleasure Garden, an immersive, short-term, mini-biosphere anchored by Orchid, a pop-infused cabaret/circus/burlesque hybrid. “There’s something really magical about such an environment appearing out of nowhere,” says Martin LaSalle, the event’s producer. “We want to engage audiences who don’t necessarily go to the theater, and offer a place that is all-encompassing and fully stimulating, from the visuals and sounds to aspects of taste and even smell.”
The concept of pleasure gardens—recreational public areas filled with anything from concert halls, various pavilions, and menageries to winding, tree-lined walkways—goes back to ancient Rome (and, most prominently, 18th- and 19th-century London). LaSalle, who has always been fascinated by the circus and used to perform a mix of juggling and gymnastics with his twin brother on the streets of Philadelphia, wanted to bring a scaled-down version to Miami, fusing both traditional and modern sensibilities, at a time when the weather here is just right, and in an area that has become known as a nexus for culture and design.
Orchid’s storyline is simple enough and follows a classic theme: Within a fantastical setting, the Master Gardener, played by stage actor and baritone Richard E. Waits, spends his days attempting to concoct the perfect human/flower hybrid of beauty (colorful, alluring characters include Poison Ivy and Honeysuckle Rose). He reaches his goal when he finally creates Orchid (played by Lexy Romano), and the rest of the narrative relates the intoxicating effects she has on everyone and everything around her. But in order to make it fresh and go beyond the typical cabaret renditions, LaSalle hired William Baker, a creative director celebrated for his work with such pop stars as Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, and Britney Spears.
“We’re taking music from quite a few non-pop genres—Nina Simone, Eva Cassidy—and blending it with a pop sound and aesthetic,” says LaSalle. “There’s a great amount of pop music that speaks insightfully to the main themes of more traditional cabaret music—love, beauty, loss, youth, and heartache—themes that can be incredibly powerful yet difficult to explore in a large-scale concert venue.”
“I’m used to creating pop shows on an arena level, so I’m really excited about how intimate this is,” adds Baker. “Pop brings a modernity to the cabaret, updating and broadening its appeal, which can sometimes be small, cultish, and outdated. This is a way to make it relevant once more, rather than just going for a nostalgic throwback. And because the songs are familiar, the audience usually knows them and responds well to that sense of familiarity.”
The centerpiece in this pleasure garden is the vintage, almost century-old mirror-tent (25 meters in diameter and holding roughly 500 seats) with its in-the-round stage, where the actual Orchid show happens. The approach eschews an invariable main stage to generate more of an interactive experience, with a troupe of about 15 performers. During the 100-minute show, whether you’re at a cocktail table/booth or in a regular seat, you may at one moment be focusing on someone belting out a song, then a couple performing hand-to-hand acrobatics in a water fountain, followed by aeralists overhead, while wafting aromas of fragrant garden scents and blossoming bouquets spread throughout.
Beyond the actual show, there are outdoor areas and another tented structure that houses a restaurant and lounge, with a food and beverage program run by local star chef Michelle Bernstein. As of press time, the menu was not yet available, but the general idea is to offer gourmet twists on conventional circus food (think popcorn made with duck fat, and novel interpretations of cotton candy, hot dogs, and so on, along with tapas and sliders).
Of course, since there are elements of cabaret and burlesque, the show itself will feature lots of bare skin, but LaSalle insists it’s about sensuality and not prurient eroticism. “The cast will be sexy, and there will be times when they don’t have a lot of clothes on,” he says. “It’s a stylized, high-fashion, adult-oriented show, but it’s not raunchy or about turning people on like that.”
“Burlesque has lost its shock value anyway because nudity is everywhere these days,” adds Baker. “But people forget that true burlesque is a humorous caricature that takes the piss out of something that’s otherwise serious. There’s a lot more to it than nipple tassels and feathers. So we’re inspired by that, and also by the circus and cabaret, but Orchid can’t be pigeonholed into any singular genre. It’s more of a cocktail.” November 14–January 6, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays, 299 NE 38th St., Miami
photography by manuel ac (naumenko); Pleasure Garden Entertainment (restaurant tent)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.