'Moulin Rouge! The Musical': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit in 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical'
Almost makes Baz Luhrmann look like a minimalist.

Baz Luhrmann's playfully postmodern riff on the Hollywood movie musical set in fin de siècle Paris gets amped up for the stage, with Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit stepping into roles played onscreen by Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

Moulin Rouge! was Baz Luhrmann at his most brashly baroque, a shameless pop-cultural magpie molding equal parts kitsch, cool and cliché into a rhapsodic dream. The giddy 2001 screen collision of soaring romance and dazzling artifice helped resuscitate the movie musical. Stage director Alex Timbers and the creative team on this delirious theatrical reinvention take those Luhrmann impulses and run with them, crafting a gaudy and gorgeous jukebox pastiche in which eye-popping spectacle, off-the-charts energy and almost non-stop musical mashups provide the plush padding for a featherweight plot.

The show is A LOT, in every sense, both intoxicating and exhausting in its unrelenting visual and sonic assault. But it virtually defies you not to be entertained.

This is a wildly extravagant production that leaves no mystery as to where its reported $28 million budget has been spent. Negotiating the music rights alone must have cost a small fortune, while the sumptuous design elements induce whiplash as you try to take them all in. The massive box office during previews and effusive audience response suggest that Moulin Rouge! is a major crowd-pleaser, though it will need to sustain that business over the long haul to hit profit. But it's safe to assume nobody will leave the Al Hirschfeld Theatre feeling they haven't gotten a big, glitzy, sexy bang for their buck.

The lush sensory overload kicks in even during the preshow, as louche demimonde denizens slink around the stage and drape themselves decadently in the boxes, the women in beaded corsets, plumage and fishnets, the men in dandyish tailcoats, puffing on cigars and shooting insinuating looks into the crowd.

Derek McLane's immersive set is a fantasia in hot reds and pinks, with the blades of the windmill that gives the eponymous nightclub its name slowly turning on one side of the stage and the giant elephant that houses the dressing room of the risqué cabaret venue's star act, Satine (Karen Olivo), on the other. The playing space is framed in filigreed hearts, nesting one inside the other, while the Moulin Rouge neon spans the entire stage width. Beneath that signage at the front of the passerelle, two shapely female sword-swallowers do their thing, inhaling steel like it's a titillating sex act.

The show proper hasn't even started, and already, Timbers and Co. have taken Bazmatazz to a whole new level, bowing with flamboyant theatricality to the more-is-more aesthetic of Luhrmann and his wife and design collaborator Catherine Martin, who get a "creative services" credit here. Some will find it a bombastic onslaught, but plenty more will eat it up.

The general contours of the story remain unchanged. With his Belle Époque boîte deep in debt and risking bankruptcy, impresario Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein) urges Satine to ply her courtesan trade on the stinking rich Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) to secure the club an urgent cash infusion.

At the same time, penniless composer Christian (Aaron Tveit), an Ohio transplant who has come to Paris in search of Bohemian adventure, forms a fast friendship with Left Bank artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and tango-dancing Argentinian gigolo Santiago (Ricky Rojas). They enlist his songwriting skills on a musical melodrama they hope to have produced at the Moulin Rouge.

In scenes of goofy mistaken-identity comedy, Satine receives Christian in her chambers, believing him to be the Duke. While she writhes sensually, Christian labors under the impression he's auditioning material for her; before they even get through a chorus of Elton John's "Your Song" and seal it with a kiss, their loving pact already is written in the storybook Montmartre skyline in a cursive L'Amour sign.

This necessitates keeping their union hidden from the jealous Duke, who demands total possession of both the club and Satine in exchange for his investment. But the nefarious aristocrat is no fool, and the lovers' reckless sentiments expose them to danger. While Christian risks a broken heart or a nasty dispatch by the Duke's thugs, Satine faces her own mortal threat with an incurable case of consumption.

While there's no shortage of humor, both droll and corny, book writer John Logan hasn't done much to fortify the material dramatically, and Timbers is more at ease in the splashy set-pieces than the intimate exchanges. Upholstered in such lavish stagecraft and such an eclectic glut of songs, the story feels even fluffier than it did in the screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.

The plot and characters for much of the show seem secondary to the celebration of flashy pop spectacle and amusing anachronisms, making this a kind of 21st century Ziegfeld Follies — or Zidler Follies, if you will. But even if more could have been done to punch up the emotional involvement in a musical short on heart and poetry, the accomplished actors eventually steer the tragic love story where it needs to go in climactic scenes that are genuinely affecting if a tad abrupt in their outcome.

For many in the audience, the staggering volume of pop hits incorporated, ingeniously arranged into a throbbing musical mosaic, will be sufficient reward on its own. The intricate fluidity of the work by music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger Justin Levine makes him as much a creative mastermind as Timbers on this project. In addition to songs featured in the movie, the show dips liberally into chart successes of more recent vintage, from performers including Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce, Sia, Gnarls Barkley, Lorde, Britney Spears and countless others, sometimes dropping in little more than a phrase or two.

Quite often, however, the crowd seems to be applauding to signal their recognition and approval of the song choices rather than losing themselves in the story or character developments. There's a tellingly awkward moment where Christian has been brutally dismissed by Satine under threat from the Duke, and he launches into a tortured, angry take on Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." The karaoke impulse to clap and sing along to a familiar hit is counterintuitive to the intentions of a scene of emotional devastation. But maybe the millennial need to be part of the show and not just a passive spectator makes participation more important.

Whether or not it always works in the service of the flimsy story, the constant barrage of songs is a blast. This begins with the thrilling opening, as Burstein's marvelously seedy showman Zidler welcomes "reprobates and rascals, artistes and arrivistes, soubrettes and sodomites," informing us, "No matter your sin, you're welcome here."

Four featured performers launch into a sizzling take on "Lady Marmalade," before Zidler interjects with "Because you can can can!" mixed with a dash of Cab Calloway's "Hi-De-Do." Choreographer Sonya Tayeh puts the dancers through their vigorous paces as costumer Catherine Zuber's vividly colored frilled skirts fly. The Duke struts in to Outkast's "Fresh and Clean," proclaiming his credo in "Money (That's What I Want)," until the action cuts to Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago in their artist's garret, schooling Christian on revolutionary ideals in Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House." Then it's back to the Moulin Rouge with David Bowie's "Let's Dance," wrapped up in a few more bars of "Mocha chocolata ya ya" sexual suggestion from the Labelle hit repopularized by Luhrmann's movie.

The complexity of these multipart musical collages is astonishing. Where Luhrmann hitched two or three songs together, Levine interweaves a seemingly endless assembly, and if they seldom advance the plot, they certainly pump up the volume. Satine makes a breathtaking star entrance on a trapeze from above, dressed in top hat and glittery tail feathers, channeling sultry Shirley Bassey on "Diamonds Are Forever" before being joined by the female chorus, folding in "Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend," "Material Girl," "Single Ladies" and a quick snatch of Rihanna's "Diamonds," while the male chorus chimes in with, of all things, The Commodores' "Brick House."

It's audaciously excessive, but it works. Likewise, the mishmash of romantic lyrics known in the movie as "Elephant Love Medley." Here, the scene samples everything from A-ha to Phil Collins to Gwen Stefani, The Everly Brothers to Pat Benatar, Tina Turner to Elvis, The Beatles to U2, Natalie Imbruglia to Postal Service to more Bowie. And unlike the pleasant but thin vocals of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in the film, Olivo and Tveit both have powerful pipes, so they handle the playful back and forth of this decades-spanning musical word game with gusto.

The mother of all mashups occurs at the start of Act 2, more or less taking the place of Luhrmann's fabulously bonkers "Hindi Sad Diamonds" production number. It begins with "Bad Romance," a smoking-hot tango exhibition of the love between Santiago and ambitious club dancer Nini (Robyn Hurder), but then morphs into a full company rehearsal for the show within the show, a fictionalized echo of the offstage love triangle. Tayeh's dance moves are at their wittiest and most athletic in a propulsive sequence that jumps from Gaga through "Tainted Love," "Toxic" and "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" before circling back to "Bad Romance."

As exhilarating as that showstopper is, however, the rare instances in which any of the main characters get to reveal something of themselves in a complete song provide a welcome breather. Among those interludes are Satine psyching herself up to be the oily Duke's plaything by belting out "Firework," Toulouse-Lautrec confessing his unrequited love in "Nature Boy," or Christian establishing a secret signal with Satine in the rapturous "Come What May," which becomes a swoony duet for the two of them.

While the show is very much a patchwork, it's the strength of the performers that ultimately sells it, as much as the knockout visuals. Tveit has never been better or in more glorious voice than as the wide-eyed lover and dreamer, while the fact that the lithe and luminous Olivo reads as somewhat more mature makes sense for a character who has been around the block a few times, turning tricks from age 13, her willingness to be transported by love doing battle with her jaded experience.

Ngaujah is terrific at conveying the pathos beneath the prideful spirit of Toulouse-Lautrec, a syphilitic boozer whose real-life deformity manifests here with the smart economy of a shuffling limp. Rojas plays the archetypal Latin lover with relish, and moves to match, while Hurder's Nini — another performer with fierce moves and killer leg extensions — is a tough cookie pleasingly softened from her screen predecessor. Here, rather than being merely a scheming rival for Satine's headliner billing, Nini is a sister who feels sufficient solidarity to warn her as danger looms. That feeds into the impression of the Moulin Rouge troupe as a surrogate family.

The slightly weak link of the main cast is Mutu's Duke, who exudes only cartoon menace and wan charisma, lacking the wicked, mustache-twirling delight of Richard Roxburgh in the movie. But he does get a supremely sleazy seduction medley, fusing The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" with "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and some reworked "Gimme Shelter" lyrics.

At the other end of the spectrum, Burstein's Zidler is in absolute command. Like Jim Broadbent in the movie, he's a twinkly-eyed pleasure-monger of dubious morality. But his exploitation of Satine here contains no cruelty, and instead is tempered by genuine fondness, his affections made purer by the fact that he's gay. While Burstein gets to lead too few numbers, the notable exception is a rowdy "Chandelier," in which he sets about exorcising Satine out of Christian's head with help from the "green fairy," absinthe. But with or without solos, Burstein is the thread that binds the show together, a sweeter though no less gleefully sordid sibling to the Brechtian emcee character from Cabaret, his ringmaster's cane ejaculating confetti over the audience.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is definitely all about the emphatic exclamation point, rarely about the subtler moments, and it could just as easily play Vegas as Broadway. It's a postmodern La Boheme on hallucinogens. But watching performers of this caliber bathed in the caressing colors of Justin Townsend's lighting, cocooned in the imaginative confectionary of McLane and Zuber's designs, and navigating Levine's elaborate musical mazes is an experience that will leave few indifferent. To borrow the title of a buoyant song that drives the mega-mix curtain call (possibly because the rights had been acquired and there was nowhere else to put it): "Hey Ya!"

Venue: Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York
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, Aaron C. Finley, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Bahiyah Hibah, Ericka Hunter, Reed Luplau, Morgan Marcell, Brandt Martinez, Jodi McFadden, Kevyn Morrow, Fred Odgaard, Khori Michelle Petinaud, Benjamin Rivera

Book: John Logan, based on the Twentieth Century Fox motion picture written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce and directed by Luhrmann
Director: Alex Timbers
Music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements and additional lyrics: Justin Levine
Choreographer: Sonya Tayeh
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Creative services: Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin
Music director and additional arrangements: Cian McCarthy
Co-orchestrators: Katie Kresek, Charlie Rosen, Matt Stine
Dance arrangements: Justin Levine, Matt Stine
Presented by Carmen Pavlovic, Gerry Ryan, Global Creatures, Bill Damaschke, Aaron Lustbader, Hunter Arnold, Darren Bagert, Erica Lynn Schwartz/Matt Picheny/Stephanie Rosenberg, Adam Blanshay Productions/Nicholas & Chalres Talar, Iris Smith, Aleri Entertainment, CJ ENM, Sophie Qi/Harmonia Holdings, Baz & Co., AF Creative Media/International Theatre Fund, Endeavor Content, Tom & Pam Faludy, Gilad-Rogowsky/Instone Productions, John Gore Organization, Mehr-BB Entertainment, Spencer Ross, Nederlander Presentations/IPN, Eric Falkenstein/Suzanne Grant, Jennifer Fischer, Peter May/Sandy Robertson, Triptyk Studios, Carl Daikeler/Sandi Moran, DeSantis-Baugh Productions, Red Mountain Theatre Company/42nd Club, Candy Spelling/Tulchin Bartner, Roy Furman, Jujamcyn Theaters, by special arrangement with Buena Vista Theatrical