Moulin Rouge! the Musical: 3/5 Stars
There was a show. A very strange, enchanted show.
Entering the red light-coated Al Hirschfeld Theatre, with the stage flanked on either side with a giant red windmill and a large elephant’s head, you’re immediately asked to immerse yourself in the dreamlike, fantastical world of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 romantic tragedy Moulin Rouge! As its musical adaptation blazes forth with a whiplash-inducing 70 songs, flashy can-can dancers and bohemian ideals, the fantasy is forced to be grounded in reality and loses some of the film’s spectacular spectacular-ness in the process.
Before the curtains open, the show begins very suddenly with two women swallowing swords. Like Cabaret, Moulin Rouge! thankfully refuses to let you forget that its setting is maybe its most important character. Even the Playbill offers a history of the storied Paris cabaret club’s 130 year history. The framing of the musical is the first thing that sets it apart from its film counterpart: where Luhrmann framed the story with foreboding sadness led by the mystical song “Nature Boy,” the stage show looks to the bacchanalian chaos of the cabaret.
We see Christian, a struggling American writer played by Aaron Tveit, stumble upon the sword swallowers. With a snap of his fingers, “Lady Marmalade” begins and club emcee Harold Zidler (played with booming flourish by Danny Burstein) becomes our capable host, introducing the audience to the very essence of his club, his dancers and, most importantly, his clientele. The opening number is as dizzying as the Moulin Rouge’s introduction is in the film: a rapid-fire hodgepodge of dancing and pop music mashups (OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” and DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” are just two of the tracks in this scene-setting showstopper).
The party comes to a screeching halt when we break to properly meet Christian and the Bohemians. The sequence is an energy-sapping interruption; Christian delivers a monologue about his history that shifts the pace of the show entirely too early before engaging in one of the song’s first, entirely new mash-ups.
Of course, 70 songs does not mean that they’re all performed in full. Most of the time, significant lines from the pop songs the show covers are used as operatic dialogue. This is where the show becomes disjointed: the mix of humor and earnestness meant to be elicited from the song references doesn’t quite mesh and the lines between those prominent aren’t properly drawn. The meeting of the Bohemians and introduction to Christian, Toulouse (Sahr Ngaujah) and Santiago (Ricky Rojas) starts off a bit tongue-in-cheek. Christian proves his writing prowess by singing lines from Paula Cole, Police and Rick Astley hits to his new comrades which shifts very suddenly to more sentimental reflection on the bohemian ideals via Lorde’s “Royals,” T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution” and Fun.’s “We Are Young.” Sitting there, it was difficult to not immediately respond with snickering and shock as each song was introduced and processed, but that never-clear line between schtick and depth becomes trickier to navigate as the show progresses.
Soon, we meet Satine, the star of the Moulin Rouge and a courtesan whose job on this particular night is to seduce the Duke (Tam Mutu) and help keep the struggling club afloat. Christian and the Bohemians unwittingly show up to the club to offer their own enticing proposition to Satine: a starring role in the show they’ve written together and are hoping to put on at the club. Karen Olivo, who is criminally under-regarded as one of her generation’s greatest stage talents, shines as “the sparkling diamond” herself. She descends from the sealing for her medley of songs about diamonds (including Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds”) and when she nearly faints, we see the first glimpse of the show’s final tragedy.
One of the show’s great wins is the subtle restructuring of Satine. The musical offers more background story, as Toulouse later tells Christian about the tenacious teenage prostitute who worked her way up to become the club’s star. Olivo takes the delicate damsel-in-distress element almost entirely out of her performance, reflecting the hard-edged independence and big dreams of the troubled, talented woman.
After her introduction, our stars meet by accident. Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke and dances with the poor American as his friends distract Zidler, who is depending on Satine to save his club. Was Walk the Moon’s corny hit “Shut Up and Dance” the best song to soundtrack this meet-cute? Certainly not, but their chemistry is charming, nonetheless.
The next song misstep was for Satine’s big emotional ballad. As she’s backstage — preparing for the man she thinks is the Duke while keeping her illness hidden — she sings Katy Perry’s “Firework.” It turns out that some songs are maybe too popular to resonate the way they’re intended in the show’s context, with the gleeful recognition from the audience overpowering the intent. The lack of “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” as covered by Nicole Kidman in the film for a similar scene, feels significant.
Act One ends on back-to-back high notes. Christian and Satine kiss but she soon realizes she’s mistaken him for the wrong man. When the Duke finds them in the room (with the Bohemians who are trying to get Christian out of there), it provides an easy entry point for a show pitch. The Duke decides to not only help finance the show but buy the Moulin Rouge — as well as Satine. Fortunately for everyone, the Duke is a more nefariously sexy character in the musical than simply nefarious, as he is in the film. He sings a medley of Rolling Stones songs that show off that combo while in Satine’s room, another fine addition to the adaptation.
When Christian returns, he grapples with Satine’s line of work but proposes they have an affair. The updated, expanded “Elephant Love Medley” is simply breathtaking as the pair exchange lines from love and heartbreak songs with one another before Satine finally accepts his proposal.
Moulin Rouge! is snappier, more effective in its second act, which picks up after a brief amount of time has passed. Spectacular Spectacular, the Bohemians’ show — which bears an intentional resemblance to Satine, Christian, and the Duke’s love triangle — is in rehearsal. Satine has grown more ill with consumption, coughing up blood backstage into her handkerchief. She’s also struggling to balance a jealous, lovesick Christian with the dangerous Duke, who would have Christian killed if he found out. Act Two opens with the show’s strongest number: a rehearsal/toxic relationship mash-up that includes Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”
As tensions run high, Christian and Satine attempt to hold on to each other as best they can. “Come What May,” an original song from the film, is rightfully included. When sung by Tveit and Olivo as opposed to Kidman and Ewan McGregor, the song reaches its full potential. Surprisingly, however, the musical offers more insight into Satine and the Duke’s relationship than the film did. We see a whole shopping trip along the Champs-Élysées, complete with the Duke singing Rihanna. It’s a genuinely welcome addition: Instead of just telling us he’s evil, we see the depths of his intentions to own Satine and completely control the way she looks and acts as his lover.
At the next rehearsal, Satine shows up in the diamonds and gown the Duke bought her, leading Christian to slip and reveal to the Duke that he’s not loved by Satine. Zidler and the Bohemians take it upon themselves to erase Satine from Christian’s mind with absinthe (Sia’s “Chandelier”), but his intoxication drives him more stir crazy as Satine spends the night with the Duke. As he sings “El Tango de Roxanne” — an inspired cover of the Police’s “Roxanne” that was featured in the original film — his mind runs rampant and he makes his way to the Duke’s home where Satine painfully rejects his love in order to save him.
More ill-advised song choices come after this heavy moment: Christian drunkenly belts Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” as he buys a gun. Satine is seen before the show’s opening, continuing the mash-up as her illness becomes dire. Watching both heavy actions — Christian loading his pistol, Satine coughing up blood — as they sing the songs borders on befuddling.
Satine, knowing she will die soon, rejects the Duke before the show. When Christian finally shows up, instead of painfully offering Satine money as he does in the film’s climax, he threatens to kill himself onstage. Satine belts a line from “Come What May,” their love theme, before they join the Company in singing “Your Song.” Suddenly, Satine collapses in her lover’s arms, finally revealing her illness to him before dying.
The show begins as it ends: with a party. While Luhrmann’s film lets the weighty sadness of Satine’s death and the closing of the Moulin Rouge linger in the final scenes, the musical reprises “Lady Marmalade” as well as a selection of previously sung and randomly chosen pop hits for the group to sing one last time.
The musical’s most difficult task may have been capturing the film’s well-balanced feeling of excess and doom. Moulin Rouge! (2001) is a paradox, a tragic fairy tale. Moulin Rouge! The Musical (2019) comes close to matching it, but gets lost in the excess, like the absinthe Christian consumes. Drunk off its own accoutrements (specifically, the glossy roster of songs it packs in under three hours), the show loses touches of the emotion that made the film a modern classic in the first place.