THEATER REVIEW: ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Is An Extravagant, Triumphant Jukebox Musical
PHOTO: The new musical adaptation of Moulin Rouge! features 71 popular songs, which all had to be licensed and stitched together into the story. Matthew Murphy/Courtesy of Moulin Rouge! The Musical
BY ALEXANDRA STARR
Moulin Rouge! The Musical telegraphs that it is not a typical musical as soon as you enter the venue. The Al Hirschfeld Theatre has been transformed into a decadent nightclub, with plush red velvet banquettes and gold-leafed statues of angels. Opulent chandeliers hang from the ceiling. A windmill dotted with lightbulbs looms above, as does an enormous blue elephant head. Men in codpieces and black leggings strut the stage as they pantomime smoking cigars. Two women dressed in garters and bustiers swallow swords in unison — prompting applause and whoops from the audience.
Then, with a lift of his hands, the protagonist Christian (played by the excellent Aaron Tveit) motions for the curtain to go up. What commences is a magical, kaleidoscopic shakeup of the jukebox musical.
Like the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie upon which it is based, the production is a thoroughly entertaining extravaganza. Its creativity doesn’t derive from an original score or particularly profound book. Instead, it features 71 pop songs that have been ingeniously pasted together (hat tip to Justin Levine, the music supervisor). The eye-popping set by Derek McLane is lush and cinematic. Costume designer Catherine Zuber decks out the performers in the most intricate and glamorous outfits that have graced Broadway since My Fair Lady (for which she also did the costumes). While Moulin Rouge! tells a story of doomed love in fin de siècle Paris, it is a lot of fun to behold.
The tone is set with the rousing opening number “Lady Marmalade”: choreographer Sonya Tayeh milks every sexy overtone nestled in the “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir” chorus. Under the glossy surface, however, a debacle looms. As the proprietor of Moulin Rouge — Harold Zidler, played with panache by Broadway veteran Danny Burstein — tells us, this refuge for the bohemians and artists of Paris is at risk of bankruptcy. Salvation, he declares, will come in the form of the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu), a deep-pocketed and sinister character who introduces himself singing the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Zidler offers up his star performer Satine (the fantastic Karen Olivo, who won a Tony as Anita in West Side Story) as bait: In exchange for his financial backing, Satine will become the duke’s courtesan. Satine, whose father pimped her out when she was just 13 years old, assents to her role in Zidler’s scheme, largely because she wants to help save the club that has become her adopted home.
An obstacle appears in the form of Christian, a penniless American songwriter who has journeyed to Paris to escape what he describes as a “suffocating” life in Ohio. He makes his way to the hipster neighborhood of Montmartre, where he befriends artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (masterly incarnated by Sahr Ngaujah) and Santiago (a sensuous Ricky Rojas). They in turn take him to Moulin Rouge, where he sees Satine descend from the ceiling on a trapeze, clothed in fishnet stockings and silver-encrusted boots, belting out “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” He woos her with Elton John’s “Your Song.” It is established: Satine may be the Duke’s plaything, but her heart belongs to the American innocent.
A show-within-a-show motif emerges. Toulouse-Lautrec, Santiago, Christian and Satine collaborate on a musical featuring (ahem) a heroine who is locked in a transactional relationship with a deep-pocketed benefactor but loves a different man. Telling this story involves a terrific version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” That’s just a taste of the Top 40 songs the performers belt out with gusto. Tviet’s rendition of “Rolling in the Deep” will make you momentarily forget about Adele; Olivo imbues Katy Perry’s “Firework” with an impassioned melancholy that is genuinely stirring. And in one of the show’s highlights, the two actors sing lines from 20 different songs in 5 minutes as part of a fervent debate about love and romance.
Director Alex Timbers (who was behind Beetlejuice and the superb immersive musical Here Lies Love) ensures that amid all the songs and the surfeit of colors, a straightforward narrative guides the two-hour, forty-five-minute production. At the beginning, Christian informs us we are about to witness a story about love. And the show is, at its core, a boy-meets-girl confection. The emotional wallop comes not from their doomed affair, but the unabashed, over-the-top-theatrics with which it is told. It ends with a rousing number; the audience on its feet, doused in confetti. Profound it is not. But it is nonetheless a knockout night at the theater.