OAKLAND — French singer-songwriter Heloise Letissier set aside aspirations of a Broadway stage production when her music project, Christine and the Queens, took off. So it only makes sense that now that Christine and the Queens is a phenomenon overseas and in the U.S., Letissier has the type of pull to incorporate theatrical elements into her music show. At the Fox Theater Friday night, she was backed by a full band and six uniquely dressed dancers, each with a role to play throughout the show. There were also moving stage elements, changing backdrops and a metal staircase that Letissier at one point climbed. Her show was, in other words, a bit like watching a hipper version of Rent.
The show began with the dancers holding conversation among themselves. Then Letissier, playing the role of “Chris,” the central character on her new album of the same name, entered stage-left like a greaser from The Outsiders and the dancers scattered in fear as the band kicked into album opener “Comme si on s’aimait.” This song, and all of her newer material, sounded richer than the relatively sparse instrumentation on the record. Where the record emphasizes what’s modern about Christine and the Queens, the sound oozed with ’80s nostalgia. During the first song, Letissier had mock battles with the dancers, vanquishing them with a single kick or punch.
“Damn, dis-moi” came next, with the frontwoman and her dancers at times moving as one block, and at other times seemingly randomly across the stage, snapping back into position effortlessly. Most fans were on their feet throughout the night, but the duration of cheering after the first two songs, and repeatedly throughout the night, showed that the songs were standing-ovation-worthy.
“Damn Oakland; look at you,” Letissier said, with surprise on her face. “As we would say in France, ‘bonjour.'”
She explained that the next song, “Le G,” was simply some French songwriting atop a G-Funk track, and then she slowed the pace with 2014 cuts “Chaleur Humaine” and “Science Fiction.” A short Queen clip (“Radio Gaga”) played while the band’s platforms were rearranged to the sides of the stage. Letissier performed “Paradis Perdus” alone on stage, to a backing track. She got the lone spotlight, soliloquy treatment on the slowly-building song that would eventually boil over. “How could you be so heartless?” she sang again and again.
Following that song, a mountain-set backdrop was wicked away to reveal a cloud-scene for Christine and the Queens hit “iT.” Act Two.
Letissier picked the pace back up with “Feels So Good” and “Tilted.” “I’ve tried for years to fit in,” she said, also demonstrating the concept by attempting to interact with her dancers, who were frozen during this time for added drama. On “5 Dollars,” she danced amid a scrum of dancers who ran circles around her. At one point they were running backwards, crossing each others’ paths. It was impressive that no one got run over. Slow-burner “What’s-Her-Face” was another highlight, while “Here” was a bit of a mood re-setter. Letissier spent the majority of the song at the back of the stage, with her shirt off and sensually dancing, with her back to the crowd.
At some point, the backdrop switched again, this time to a simple black. The emptiness accentuated the plumes of smoke through which the group danced during “Goya Soda” And on “Nuit 17 à 52,” with the absence of any production elements, the band and the dancers helped the bandleader shine a spotlight on her voice. She sang the song a cappella. Though many fans stumbled on the French lyrics, they quickly joined in when Christine and the Queens transitioned to a brief cover of “Man in the Mirror.”
Following a handful of songs that included 2014 hit “Saint Claude,” Christine and the Queens teased that fans could now enjoy an herbal tea and go to sleep. That was a red herring, as before Letissier finished gently whispering “Intranquillité,” the group kicked into the club banger. The dancers and the singer than paraded though the crowd, second-line parade-style.
Brooklyn-Moraccan singer and rapper Dounia opened the concert with a 20-minute set of urban soul songs. Backed by only a DJ, the 21-year-old opened with “How I See It,” which blended a hip-hop beat with acoustic guitar and whisper-sung vocals. “Avant-Garde” was more of a straight-up hip-hop banger. Between songs, she explained how she spent her childhood between New York and Casablanca (a song of the name was about her time on the streets of that city) and how her family spoke three languages, including French and a North African dialect. She then played a song that included some rapping in that dialect.
On other songs, Dounia focused on smoother R&B melodies, such as those on “Shyne” and “East Coast Hiding.”