Thursday, August 15, 2019

54 (2019-2020): Review: MOULIN ROUGE: THE MUSICAL (seen August 14, 2019)

You've read the reviews. Now read the book. THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE, 2012-2013 A Brief Memoir and Reviews

"Whenever We Kiss, I Worry and Wonder"

Opulent, extravagant, lavish, fabulous . . . the list of superlatives could go on endlessly to describe the eye-boggling visuals of Broadway’s newest theatrical spectacle, Moulin Rouge: The Musical. This, of course, is an adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s equally profligate 2001 film, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. 
Moulin Rouge set. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Every penny of its reported $30 million budget flashes in your face from the moment you enter the dazzlingly decorated, red-hued, Al Hirschfeld Theatre auditorium, over whose stage hangs a huge electric sign shouting the show’s name. Hovering above the glowingly gilded balcony to your left is a huge red mill (moulin rouge=red mill), while staring down from the one on your right is a giant, blue elephant. 
Tam Mutu. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
As you wait for the show to start, louche men, top-hatted and cigar-smoking, in turn-of-the-20th-century, white-gloved formalwear, and loose women (two of them doing a sword-swallowing bit), in flesh-baring scanties, slither sensually about in slow-mo to a low-key, rhythmic beat. 
Compay of Moulin Rouge. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Derek McLane’s remarkably spectacular sets, representing the decadent splendor of Belle Epoque Paris, often using huge, Valentine-like heart inserts, continue to outdo themselves throughout the show’s somewhat overlong two hours and 45 minutes.
Danny Burstein. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
So do Catherine Zuber’s exuberantly imaginative, gorgeous, and often stunningly sexy costumes, supplemented by David Brian Brown’s hair designs. (Wait for the outdoor scene that reveals Parisienne boulevardiers dressed in pastel garments whose elegance rivals Cecil Beaton’s famous Ascot races costumes in My Fair Lady.) 

Thanks to Justin Townsend’s remarkably complex, absolutely brilliant (in multiple senses) lighting, everything looks that much more gorgeous. Thinking back over eight decades of Broadway theatergoing, I can’t recall any show quite as visually over-the-top. 
Sahr Ngaujah, Aaron Tveit, Ricky Rojas. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
As per the film, of course, the stage production, smashingly staged by Alex Timbers (Beetlejuice), tells its hokey romantic tale (book by John Logan) of a doomed love affair mainly by relying on familiar pop songs, some in full versions, some only in snippets, the lyrics cleverly integrated into the narrative to express the characters’ thoughts and feelings. 

It opens with a raucously extended version of “Lady Marmalade” (with its naughty lyric, “Voulez-Vous Couchez avec Moi”), introduced by the irrepressible Moulin Rouge proprietor and MC Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein). This gets the show off to a jubilantly enthusiastic start, revealing the impressive choreographic skills of Sonya Tayeh, none of whose routines is anything less than exceptional. 
Aaron Tveit, Karen Olivo. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The rather simplistic story, which has a central thread perhaps inspired by La Dame aux Camelias (a.k.a. Camille), tells of Christian (Aaron Tveit), a handsome, young, singer-songwriter from Lima, Ohio, who arrives in Paris to make his way among the bohemian artists of Montmartre, and gets involved with a couple of struggling theatre artists. They, Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and the Argentinian gigolo Santiago (Ricky Rojas), who consider themselves bohemian revolutionaries, spout the slogan “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love.” Not quite “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” of course, but just fine for these circumstances.
Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The melodramatic developments have Christian fall in love with the exquisite Moulin Rouge star, Satine (Karen Olivo), in Zidler’s employ. She, though, is suffering from (what else?) a fatal case of TB: cue the bloody hankies. A love rivalry with the wicked Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) emerges, the Duke’s money and its ability to save the Moulin Rouge from financial ruin being a sufficient lever to wrench Satine from Christian’s embrace and place her in the duke's. In the tradition of the show must go on, Satine opens the new one concocted by Christian, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Santiago, until fate catches up with her. 

But don’t be sad. A substantial curtain call number will get you standing and clapping before Montmartre's lights finally fade.
Company of Moulin Rouge. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
True, it’s not Hamilton. The plot is merely a convenient means for this jukebox musical to tie numerous familiar songs together, many so well known—the Playbill doesn’t even offer a playlist—the audience oohs and ahs at their very first bars. Satine being the Moulin Rouge’s “diamond,” you get a medley of diamond songs, like “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and excuses are found for dozens of other tunes. 

Those include both numbers from before the movie was made, as well as many recorded since, with contributions from the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé, Adele, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga.
Company of Moulin Rouge. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Among the ones I forced myself to turn away from the stage to jot down are “Shut Up and Dance with Me,” “Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guessed My Name,” “Firework,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It?,” “Bad Romance,” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” “Only Girl in the World,” “Roxanne,” “We Could Have Had it All,” “Your Song,” “Come What May,” “Nature Boy,” “Chandelier,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and even “The Sound of Music.” “I Love You Till the End of Time” and “How Wonderful Life Is” serve, more or less, as the show’s emotional anthems. Justin Levine’s orchestrations satisfactorily replace those of the originals with full-bodied, Broadway-style renderings.
Karen Olivo, Tam Mutu. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
One song you won’t hear, though, among the 75 or so that filter through the show is “Tell Me Where Is Your Heart,” the theme song from the 1952 film, Moulin Rouge, its first lyric quoted in the title of this review. Unlike the Broadway film or its cinematic original, that movie attempted a realistic depiction of the same world. In it, Jose Ferrer made a splash playing Toulouse-Lautrec, a dwarf, by acting on his knees.

In Moulin Rouge: the Musical, inspired by the fact-free, phantasmagoric style of Luhrmann’s film, Toulouse-Lautrec is played by a black actor, Sahr Ngaujah, who maintains his natural size and differs from everyone else only by his skin color and his use of an accent that sometimes sounds French, sometimes African. (John Leguizamo covered the role on screen.)
Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
As Satine, who makes her first entrance by flying in on a trapeze, Karen Olivo’s tawny beauty combines magnetically with her dancing, singing, and acting talent to raise her to the A-list of Broadway musical stars. Aaron Tveit’s Christian evidences his soaring tenor and terpsichorean skills, if not always his thespian ones. Danny Burstein, as always, gives you your money’s worth as the gay, likably comedic, Moulin Rouge owner and Cabaret-like MC. Tam Mutu is a suitably slimy aristocratic villain, Robyn Hurder sizzles as showgirl hottie Nini, and both Sahr Ngaulah and Ricky Rojas shine as Christian’s partners.
Ricky Rojas, Robyn Hurder. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
But the main attraction at Moulin Rouge: The Musical, regardless of its stars and music, is its sumptuousness. If you want to know why Broadway tickets can cost so much—according to one site, top seats here go for as much as $400—take a gander at this one, if you can afford it! Or watch the movie. 

Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 W. 45th St., NYC
Open run