Seeing red: Moulin Rouge! The Musical
When a musical’s title contains an exclamation mark, you know it means business. This stage version of Baz ‘The Michael Bay of Jazz Hands’ Luhrmann’s 2001 cinematic jukebox romance comes at you hard from the start. The clicking fingers and filthy bassline of Lady Marmalade thrust you into the glittering, gaudy chaos of Paris’ Moulin Rouge nightclub, where tutu’d twirlers and corseted courtesans promise to fulfil your every desire.
This becomes a literal plot point as the club is in financial trouble (booo!), although club patron the Duke of Monroth will perhaps invest (hurrah!), but that is dependent on him sleeping with and owning the club’s sultry star, Satine (ewww!) who is incidentally coming down with a fatal case of terminal consumption (awww!). Enter Christian (Conor Ryan), a sappily romantic Ohioan visitor who has fallen in with the charismatic socialist ‘bohemians’ Toulouse-Lautrec (Nick Rashad Burroughs) and Santiago (Gabe Martínez).
Christian just wants to write and perform his love songs, and in a classic mix-up, he ends up in a dressing room with Satine (Courtney Reed) delivering his best Elton John while she believes him to be the Duke and they fall instantly in love. When the Duke DOES turn up for what he paid for, they convince him to back a new show, and Christian is relegated to sad boi side piece (conflict ensues). The entire enterprise is handled by campy, opportunistic hedonist Zidler (Austin Durant), the club’s manager.
The pop musical numbers come thick and fast, especially when a lyric can be crowbarred into the conversation, and the playlist has been fully updated from 20 years ago, so expect more Lady Gaga than Nirvana. The plot isn’t the most convoluted, and for me, the show is at its best when exploring the themes of found family within the bohemians or the club employees. Christian and Satine trade ballads (both have impressive pipes), and Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago both get evocative set pieces.
The costumes (Catherine Zuber) and scenic design (Derek McLane) do a lot of great work, your ticket money right up there on stage, seamlessly swinging from baroque theater to the grimy Montmartre to the sophistication of Champs-Élysées. There are quite a few huge, exuberant dance numbers that show off Sonya Tayeh’s expert choreography.
The songs work well for the most part (the musical jump scare of Cee-lo Green very much excepted) and renditions of ‘Firework’ and of course ‘Your Song’ get ecstatic audience reactions. There are a couple of high-octane medleys that pinball you through two decades of pop hits, and the second half opener of Bad Romance builds from a sexy two-hander to a full-out joyous ensemble whirlwind.
It’s a spectacle. Yes, it’s sentimental in parts, and don’t think about the plot too hard, but if you love pop music and huge neon sets and streamers popping out of canes and saucy innuendo and large-format burlesque, then you’ll have a memorable night out. And at the end of the day, that’s really all that the Moulin Rouge wants for you.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical plays at the Saenger until April 16th.
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