Like an old-fashioned TV variety show or – to borrow Caroline Calouche & Co.’s preferred analogy – a cabaret, Rouge is intended to intrigue and surprise you with new and unexpected spectacles. The company core strengths, modern and aerial dance, are thrown into a mélange that includes torch and pop singing, outbreaks of audience participation, and a pinch or three of French flavoring. Not quite enough to make you feel that the address of Booth Playhouse has been transformed to “130 Rue Tryon du Nord” as indicated on the playbill, but enough to communicate CC&Co.’s can-can inclinations. Now in its second edition, Rouge is an October phenomenon, so a certain amount of Saturnalian darkness and gloom are also in the ragout, meshing with the adults – only 9:00 PM starting time on opening night.

Last year’s Rouge container had certainly been refilled with enough new content to justify revisiting Booth Playhouse for a second taste, and a robust, enthusiastic crowd turned out for its late-evening return. Rachael Houdek, who occasionally hosts her own cabaret shows, returned as our emcee, far more relaxed than she appeared to be last year when she first entered the Calouche galaxy – and in far better voice. In fact, Houdek absolutely scorched Carole King’s “Natural Woman” as Jamie Larkin performed on trapeze to choreography she created with Calouche. With the audience supplying percussion, Houdek followed up with Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” three segments deeper into the show.

The 2014 edition didn’t immediately diverge from last year’s original, opening again with Calouche as the lead dancer in “My Drag.” Set to music by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Calouche’s eau de Bob Fosse choreography showcases an all-female ensemble that beckons seductively to us, straddling or lounging on cane chairs. Jazz hit-maker Ramsey Lewis provided the musical spark for “Tap It Out.” Among the six dancer-choreographers frenetically tapping this piece, I was most drawn to the energy of company member Stephanie Cantrell, but if I wearied from her hyper cheer, I’d gaze toward second year apprentice Adamma Haith or the only guy in this segment, Chance LeVan. Sporting a pre-recorded score by cellist Adam Hurst, Calouche’s “Silks” had six women doing their graceful aerial work on four silks, some of it rather incredible. “Flashback,” mashing up numerous video hits beginning with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” had the effervescence of a cavalcade of MTV hits bringing us to intermission with the added uplift of massive audience participation onstage.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of stumbles during the course of the evening. Peopled mostly with Calouche Co. adjuncts, “Trust” was the company’s first foray into an acrobatic balancing style of dance. Set by Calouche to music by Olafur Arnolds, the performance looked like a very tentative beginning compared to similar acro work that I’ve seen at Spoleto Festival USA in recent years. After intermission, the sneak peek at next spring’s Carmina Burana also looked more like a preliminary rehearsal than a polished final product, even if Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” provided a reliable spark of orgiastic choral excitement. Other surprises were more successful, including a couple that were not even hinted at in the printed program.

Between the Carmina preview and the aerial finale, we had the unexpected appearance of the most scintillating dancer of the evening, former Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre member Constance Stamatiou in her Charlotte debut, performing a brief yet indelible solo. This was followed by an impromptu lip-syncing contest, with a hurriedly prepped ticketholder plucked out of the audience competing against three company members. Incredibly, the polo shirt clad member from the audience, Will, came out after his intensive hibernation backstage and blew away all three of the contestants who had preceded him. Nor was the “Finale” an anticlimax, as we saw the debut of Calouche’s unique new apparatus, the Aerial Chandelier, above the concluding action. Outlining an inverted cone, two parallel hoops were suspended from the fly loft, strong enough to hold four dancers at once – Calouche, Larkin, Sarah Johns, and Alison Johnson. Music from the Glitch Mob reached a crescendo as the full ensemble joined in. Whether this was cabaret or a New Age block party, Calouche’s fans clearly liked what they saw.

Rouge has one final performance, tonight at 9:00 PM. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.