REVIEW: “Moulin Rouge! The Musical”—opulent and empty
Sword-swallowers, can-can chorus lines, confetti explosions, and pyrotechnic displays populate the first frenetic minutes of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical”, which opened July 25th at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway under the direction of Alex Timbers (“Beetlejuice”, “Rocky”).
After a finale-like “Lady Marmalade” opening montage that ecstatically captures the manic, near-constant jump-cut energy of auteur Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed 2001 film, it is hard to know where to go and just what exactly the storytelling frame is for this lavish, big-budget stage adaption that becomes emotionally inert between dazzling musical numbers, and is ultimately an overwhelming and empty theatergoing experience.
Aaron Tveit (“Next to Normal”, “Catch Me If You Can”) stars as Christian, an impoverished songwriter from Lima, Ohio seeking inspiration in the bohemian garrets of fin de siècle Paris when he falls for Satine (Karen Olivo, “West Side Story”, “In the Heights”), a consumption-sick courtesan and headlining performer at the famous Moulin Rouge.
In order to save the iconic nightclub and music hall owned by impresario Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein, “Fiddler on the Roof”), Satine entertains a relationship with the evil Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) while Christian and his pals, Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Santiago (Ricky Rojas), devise a new musical production for the Moulin Rouge that just so happens to mirror its backstage love triangle.
While translating a story from screen to stage often gives writers greater opportunity to explore the inner world of characters through the interpolation of song and the use of other inherently theatrical devices, the opposite turns out to be true for “Moulin Rouge!”—itself already a musical in film form that finds its story diluted and denuded in this stage iteration.
I did not see the film “Moulin Rouge!” in theatres in 2001, but I have seen it many times since, and the device of having characters in 1899 Paris express themselves using a mashup of contemporary pop music works better on screen than it does on stage, where a wink from the performers—often implied, but sometimes literal—transforms the introduction of each new, familiar song into a laugh line that rips away whatever storytelling power or emotional resonance any given song might otherwise possess.
And there are A LOT of songs in this show—some 70, in fact, from 161 credited authors and artists as varied as Edith Piaf, Georges Bizet, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jule Styne, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Sting, David Bowie, Dolly Parton, Bono, Britney Spears, Outkast, Lady Gaga, Jack Antonoff, Sia, and Katy Perry, all crafted into mashups that are flashy and fleeting in pace, and more anachronistically amusing than dramatically purposeful.
Arrangements and orchestrations by Justin Levine, Katie Kresek, Charlie Rosen, and Matt Stine reimagine the sound of many of these pop hits—some of which were used in the film and many of which are new to the piece—such that it often takes a verse or so for the audience to figure out the song before intermittent bouts of laughter break out across the auditorium.
That gets old. If we’re repeatedly prompted to laugh, even in the most serious moments, how are we supposed to engage meaningfully with the melodramatic tragedy of the story? Stripped of sincerity, the entire musical loses the heart that should beat at its core and is reduced to not much more than a very well-produced concert containing a parade of popular music—a brand-extending marketing venture like Moulin Rouge “the ride”.
Before I go further, though, let me state two undeniable truths: this musical sounds and looks absolutely spectacular.
Mr. Tveit and Ms. Olivo deliver staggeringly impressive vocal performances as they and an energetic and attractive cast of 32 perform in near non-stop motion over the course of two and a half hours. My jaw dropped at Ms. Olivo’s first number, “Diamonds Are Forever/Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend/Material Girl/Single Ladies”—sung after descending from the ceiling on a swing—and Mr. Tveit’s emotionally climactic performance during “El Tango De Roxanne” is simply scintillating.
The reported cost of this production is a cool $28 million—and it looks it. Designers Derek McLane (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Justin Townsend (lighting), and Peter Hylenski (sound) make magic with a physical production that is lush, rich, handsome, and transporting from the moment you enter the auditorium to your dizzying exeunt following the now-obligatory and superfluous post-show megamix curtain call concert.
The interior of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre is awash in red light and red velvet, with a “Loveland”-like mise-en-scène that extends from the depths of upstage right out into the audience and up into the heights of the mezzanine. In fact, in a rare feat, the theatre feels too small for the visual abundance and scale of this design.
I wish the producers had been able to secure the Broadway, Palace, or Lyric Theatres instead—much larger houses that would properly frame the show and give it the room to breathe that it is denied at the Hirschfeld. My advice for ticket buyers: sit mid-mezzanine to get the full effect of this gorgeous production design.
For all the success of this extravagant and boisterous excess in design, the one-dimensional characters of this musical are awfully tame and soulless by comparison.
Mr. Tveit and Ms. Olivo, while sounding terrific, have absolutely no chemistry together, and are flat and unconvincing in book scenes. Without a credible love story at the core of the show, what is the point? Getting that right is foundational—it is the spine of “Moulin Rouge!”—and I did not believe one second of this central love affair.
A patina of queerness is glossed onto the piece to check audience feel good boxes but without actually allowing queer characters, like Zidler and Baby Doll (Jeigh Madjus), to say or do much. Satine’s supposed feud with fellow Moulin Rouge dancer Nini (Robyn Hurder), her understudy, is introduced and solved within a single scene in act two, and the Duke’s entire presence is both under-dramatized and forgettable.
Mr. Burstein, a six-time Tony Award nominee, is tragically underused as Zidler. He is introduced as a master of ceremonies in the opening number—an intriguing and logical device for telling the story on stage—but is soon replaced by Mr. Tveit’s Christian as the story’s narrator (as in the film), who then has to both be in the story and comment on it—a duality not mastered by John Logan’s book.
Is the whole show a show-within-a-show concept? No. But some scenes behave as such—like a stroll Satine takes with the Duke on the Champs-Élysées—confusing the clarity of the overarching framework and underscoring a missed opportunity for this adaption. Just why isn’t the whole show performed as a Moulin Rouge show? Beats me.
While the musical numbers are consistently and appropriately entertaining—Sonya Tayeh’s choreography makes up for pop and sizzle what it lacks in character and storytelling—the book scenes don’t gel, and feel like an afterthought.
Indeed, one suspects that the considerable creative energy that Mr. Timbers possesses might have been overspent on creating a comprehensive and impressive look and feel for the piece—which he does!—instead of focusing on the storytelling within it—which he does not!—as actors repeatedly look lost in scenes without focus and tension.
In the end, this unsatisfying “Moulin Rouge!” lacks the depth and intensity necessary to properly anchor all its glitz, leaving not much more than an ephemeral impression of visual and aural opulence. The 2001 film remains more rewarding, more enjoyable, and—most ironically—more inherently theatrical than this commodity-sleek and sonically-overstuffed theatrical version.
Bottom Line: Director Alex Timbers’ stage adaption of “Moulin Rouge!” is visually and aurally opulent, boasting a lavish production design of the utmost scale and expense; however, the story itself gets short shrift. Emotionally inert between dazzling musical numbers, the whole musical ends up lacking the depth and intensity necessary to properly anchor all its glitz, and is ultimately less rewarding, enjoyable, and theatrical than the 2001 film it takes as its basis.