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A CurtainUp Review
Moulin Rouge! The Musical

. . . this is more than a nightclub. The Moulin Rouge is a state of mind. It is that part of your soul which throbs and pulses, it is that corner of your mind where your fantasies live. — Harold Zidler, impresario of the Moulin Rouge
Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Danny Burstein
Over the years, Hollywood has fabricated several celluloid versions of Belle Epoque Paris in motion pictures with the title Moulin Rouge. Only one of the films calledMoulin Rouge, however, has an exclamation mark at the end of its title. That movie — Moulin Rouge! — is Baz Luhrmann's 2001 exercise in anachronism and visual excess. Almost two decades later, an adaptation of Luhrmann's movie has landed on Broadway, directed by Alex Timbers instead of Luhrmann. It's a live-action spectacle with the same name as the film, including that breathlessly distinguishing exclamation mark.

This new jukebox musical has a plot that's a mixture of Puccini's La Boheme (which Luhrmann famously directed on Broadway in 2002) and Verdi's La Traviata— plus narrative elements reminiscent of Cabaret, Babes in Arms, and Colette's novel Cherie. In a letter on the production's website, Luhrmann claims that, in concocting the story, he was inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and, if you squint, you can kind of spot what he's talking about, though it's somewhat obscured by the eclectically melodramatic fripperies of the musical's plot.

Moulin Rouge! concerns Christian (Aaron Tveit), a young Ohioan, who arrives in 1899 Paris to seek his fortune as a songwriter. On his first day in the City of Light, Christian encounters Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah), not yet famous for his paintings of the Parisian demi-monde, and Santiago Ruiz (Ricky Rojas), an Argentinian dancer.

Lautrec introduces himself to Christian as "a very great artist." He tells him that Santiago is "the greatest tango dancer in all of Paris," which, he says, "also means he's the greatest gigolo." Christian's new friends sum up their bohemian values in four words: "Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love."

Lautrec and Santiago discover that, as a composer, Christian has a knack for love songs. Grifters at heart, they ensnare him in a scheme to write and produce a show at Moulin Rouge, a Montmartre nightclub. Their first step is push him into the path of Satine (Karen Olivo), the chanteuse who's the club's top-billed performer.

Moulin Rouge appears to be thriving, but its finances are precarious. The owner, Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein), is counting on Satine (who has had a celebrated career as a courtesan) to help him pull the fat out of the fire. Though Satine's sell-by date as a courtesan is close at hand, Zidler hopes she'll become mistress of the rich and ruthless Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) and induce the Duke to shore up the nightclub's balance sheet.

Courtesans aren't supposed to fall in love, but Satine tumbles hard for the much younger Christian. The timing is inconvenient: the Duke is arriving any minute for an initial assignation.

The love triangle among Satine, the penniless Christian, and the fabulously rich Duke occupies the first half of the musical. In Act Two, melodrama accelerates as Satine exhibits symptoms of tuberculosis (or "consumption" in the language of the 19th century).

No one is likely to buy tickets to Moulin Rouge! because of its rather silly book or even to see particular performers, fine as these performers are. This show, like Beetlejuice (Timbers' other current Broadway assignment and reviewed by me here), stars a spectacular stage set (by Derek McLane), with extraordinary supporting performances from the lighting designer (Justin Townsend), costumer (Catherine Zuber), and choreographer (Sonya Tayeh). It's an evening that indulges the eyes and ears with saturated colors, constant movement on-stage and out in the house, and music, vocal and orchestral, much of it familiar and most at high decibels and rapid tempos.

McLane has transformed the entire auditorium of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre into the Moulin Rouge. The walls are covered with hundreds of yards of fabric, deep red and luxuriant; sparkling chandeliers are suspended above, and the box seats have been displaced by an enormous blue elephant on one side and a red and gold windmill on the other. Decorative motifs include hearts and cherubs and myriad curlicues.

Equal to the gorgeous look of Moulin Rouge! is the excitement of its music — a cascade of 71 pop songs, mostly from the 1970s to now, cleverly choreographed in many styles by Tayeh, and danced and sung with skill and energy by the superb principals, and a strong ensemble. Some of the songs are performed in full; others are merely sampled, often to witty effect. The vocal performances and choreography are accompanied by a fine, 14-person orchestra playing approximately 20 instruments under the direction of conductor Cian McCarthy, with highly effective sound design by Peter Hylenski.

At the performance under review, the full house included many playgoers who greeted the songs (or at least the ones familiar from the movie) with cheers of recognition. It was an exuberant crowd, clapping and stomping and sometimes singing along, but attentive and responsive even as the second act lost narrative steam and rumbled on for a little too long.

Moulin Rouge! is a brightly wrapped, intricately decorated package with little inside. It's racy, sometimes vulgar, and always indifferent to historical context and narrative logic. This makes it just the right stuff for the Trump era. If this musical has long life, Marla Maples, President Trump's showgirl second wife, and Stormy Daniels, his short-term whatever, would be ideal as Satine and Nini (the role currently played by wonderful Robyn Hurder) in the bus-and-truck tour.

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Book by John Logan
(Based on the 2001 Twentieth Century Fox Motion Picture written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, directed by Baz Luhrmann)
Directed by Alex Timbersk
Choreography by Sonya Tayeh
Principal Cast Members: Karen Olivo (Satine), Aaron Tveit (Christian), Danny Burstein (Harold Zidler), Sahr Ngaujah (Toulouse-Lautrec), Tam Mutu (The Duke of Monroth), Ricky Rojas (Santiago), and Robyn Hurder (Ninih)
Featuring Jacqueline B. Arnold, Holly James, Jeigh Madjus, Amber Ardolino, Olutayo Bosede, Kyle Brown, Sam J. Cahn, Max Clayton, Karli Dinardo, Aaron C. Finley, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Bahiyah Hibah, Ericka Hunter, Evan Kinnane, Reed Luplau, Morgan Marcell, Caleb Marshall, Brandt Martinez, Jodi McFadden, Kevyn Morrow, Fred Odgaard, Dylan Paul, Khori Michelle Petinaud, Benjamin Rivera, and Ashley Loren
Music Supervision, Orchestrations, and Arrangements by Justin Levine
Music Direction and Additional Arrangement by Cian McCarthy
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Justin Townsend
Sound: Peter Hylenski
Hair and Wigs: David Brian Brown
Make-up: Sarah Cimino
Production Stage Manager: Michael J. Passaro
Stage Manager: Davin De Santis
Running Time: Two hours and forty minutes, with one intermission
Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street
From 6/28/09; opening 7/25/19
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 7/24/19 press preview

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