“Moulin Rouge” was thrilling from the moment I entered the theater… until about ten minutes after it began. That’s because the brightest star in this stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie musical is designer Derek McLane’s set. Before we even take our seats, it envelopes us in love, or at least in lots of red – a huge red neon “Moulin Rouge” sign above red lights in the shape of a half a dozen hearts nestled lovingly within each other, a full-sized, red windmill full of lights perched on the box seats above us to our left, a life-sized elephant (which, for variety, is purple) in the box seats to our right…
Please don’t misunderstand. There are other things to like besides the design in “Moulin Rouge,” but just nothing else that’s quite as thrilling. This is a jukebox musical for the age of Spotify. It crams in some 75 cheekily anachronistic pop songs into what feels like perfunctory melodrama about a love triangle taking place in the famed Parisian nightclub Moulin Rouge in 1899.
The playlist is certainly fun, familiar and hummable; the songs from the movie (from Broadway standards like “The Sound of Music” and “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” to David Bowie’s “Nature Boy,” and Elton John’s “Your Song”) are supplemented with hits by singers who have become stars in the 17 years since the movie was made: Lady Gaga, Florence and the Machine, Sia, Beyoncé, Adele, Katy Perry. The cast features some of the most talented and appealing actors that Broadway has to offer. The always reliable Danny Burstein is impresario Harold Zidler, good-hearted if a little sleazy, who is trying to keep the club from shutting down. Aaron Tveit is Christian, an innocent composer from Ohio, who moves to the Parisian artistic district of Montmartre in pursuit of the bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom and love. He gets enlisted to write a musical for Moulin Rouge that will help save it…and meets Satine. Karen Olivio is Satine, who becomes Christian’s object of desire, a performer at the Moulin Rouge and the star of the show within the show. Tam Mutu is the villainous Duke of Monroth, the show’s producer, who gets in the way of the love between Christian and Satine by demanding Satine for himself.
Each of these performers gets at least one number that shows them at their powerhouse best, as do Robyn Hurder and Ricky Rojas in a vigorous dance number to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Even when the performers are delivering the many throwaway medleys, they do so playfully enough as to make us feel let in on the fun.
Yet, little of “Moulin Rouge” is done better than the movie, which is half an hour shorter and twice as sweet. There isn’t the same chemistry between Olivo and Tveit as between Nicole Kidman and Ewan Macgregor. The comic scenes – such as when Satine thinks that Christian is the Duke – aren’t as funny, and the dramatic scenes are at best impressive rather than moving.
Nobody would accuse the movie “Moulin Rouge” of being subtle, yet the stage musical feels much more often like a sensory assault – and not just because of the standard confetti cannons. The movie begins with John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec singing the haunting Nature Boy (“There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy”) while the camera zooms from a stage through the streets and steeples of Montmartre to focus on Ewan McGregor crying at his typewriter, while he begins typing the story, telling it in voiceover. The stage musical begins with a quartet of scantily clad buxom beauties at the lip of the stage vamping “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?”– Lady Marmalade, made a hit in 1974 by the girl group Labelle and covered constantly since then. Both songs are in both movie and musical, but the movie is more adept at hooking us into the narrative than John Logan’s book for the musical.
Even if I’d never seen the movie, though, I would surely be disappointed by the stage version. No, it doesn’t mark the end of civilization as we know it, or even the end of the Broadway musical. But, for all its hip hit pop of the moment, it does feel like a throwback to an era when musicals meant little more than the efficient and intellectually-deficient delivery of a collection of melodies.
Given these disappointments, Derek McLane’s set is arguably to “Moulin Rouge” what the 20 foot puppet is to “King Kong” – the one undiluted delight, and the main reason to make the trip to the theater, rather than stay home with memories of the superior, iconic movie version. (It may not be just a coincidence that producer Carmen Pavlovic, the head of Global Creatures, is the lead producer of both “Moulin Rouge” and “King Kong,” her first two forays onto Broadway.) The atmosphere the set creates is most inviting when you first enter the Al Hirschfeld Theater, but the pleasures introduced periodically throughout the show by the design team – not just the set but Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Justin Townsend’s lighting — kept my attention even when I started reacting to the next batch of pop songs with “Yeah, ok, I get it.”
Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy below to see it enlarged.
Al Hirschfeld Theater
Book by John Logan; Music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Justin Levine; Choreography by Sonya Tayeh; Directed by Alex Timbers
Set design by Derek McLane, costume design by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Justin Townsend, sound by Peter Hylenski, wig and hair design by David Brian Brown , makeup by Sarah Cimino
Cast: Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit, Danny Burstein, Sahr Ngaujah, Tam Mutu, Ricky Rojas, Robyn Hurder, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Holly James, Jeigh Madjus, Olutayo Bosede, Kyle Brown, Sam J. Cahn, Max Clayton, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Bahiyah Hibah, Ericka Hunter, Morgan Marcell, Brandt Martinez, Jodi McFadden, Reed Luplau, Kevyn Morrow, Fred Odgaard, Dylan Paul, Khori Michelle Petinaud and Benjamin Rivera
Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $99 to $399