In the 90’s, all the night-clubs and parlors that used to be on and around Times Square were relocated to beyond 8th avenue. It was to raise the touristic appeal of Times Square, but it also creates a very fitting situation for this sexy show called Moulin Rouge. That is because this show plays the ‘Al Hirschfeld theater’ the only Broadway theater to be located off 8th avenue. When talking to an usher during intermission, I described the first act of Moulin Rouge as: ‘the creatives basically threw everything at the wall to see what sticks, and almost everything sticks!’ and this was also true for the second act. Moulin Rouge is a musical based on the film of the same name that was in turn named after the famous establishment at the foot of Sacre Coeur in Paris. A romance in a night-club dreamt up by the extremely decadent mind of Baz Luhrmann. The musical seems only to improve on the movie however, updating some of the songs and the book and adapting it to theatrical form.
The show starts before the actors even arrive. You walk to your seats surrounded by walls clad in red-velvet and adorned with string lights, the box to the right of the proscenium usually reserved for audience is now occupied by a gigantic windmill and opposite of it there is an enormous elephant. A small catwalk extends from the stage and some actors give a sensual preshow. Then slowly, Christian (Aaron Tveit) arrives on stage, the lights dim and he raises his hands. The play begins. The first song introduces all but one of the characters, and it also introduces the conflict of the play: the bohemian ideals of ‘Freedom, Beauty, Truth and Love.’ against the power of the aristocracy. Christian is an American who has traveled all the way to Paris to be his artistic self and finds friends in some bohemians in the Latin Quarter of Paris, together with them they plot to present a play to the owners of the Moulin Rouge for them to perform. The Moulin Rouge, however, has hit rock bottom. They are in desperate need of money and the owner Harold Ziddler (Austin Durant) decides together with his main attraction Satine (Karen Olivo) that she will be auctioned off to the Duke (Tam Mutu) so he will become a patron of the establishment. Both plans reach their goal, though not without their respective hiccups. When Christian goes to audition his play Satine falls in love with him, mistaking him for the Duke. The Duke agrees to fund the play and the Moulin Rouge though, as long as Satine will be his. What follows is a game of cat and mouse with a tragic ending.
Inspired by both La Traviata and the Orpheus Myth, the story written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce feels like a classic already. John Logan, who adapted the screenplay into the book, does an excellent job of translating this feel to the stage. The reason it already feels like a classic is mostly because of its influences, both containing a very simple plot that can be exploited to great dramatic effect. The movie was a juke-box musical, using hits from the time with a few classics and the musical takes this to its logical conclusion by updating the score with a few of the most recent hits as well. But the use of the music isn’t as jarring as you would think. The way I would describe it is witty. You instantly recognize the songs and you might chuckle because of that but you also instantly recognize the dramatic potential. For example: ‘Rolling in the Deep’ by Adelle with its rhythmic base is used to amp up the tension as the plot nears the point of catastrophe. But the placement of the songs isn’t what makes it clever alone, the way they are orchestrated and integrated within other songs creates a wholly original score that fits the feel of the play and Justin Levine (music supervisor, orchestrator, arrangements and additional lyrics) deserves full credit for that.
Who may not be overlooked in this show are the beautiful humans of the ensemble, they ground the show as extras and create the spectacle in the beautifully choreographed dance numbers.
What really helps the integration of the songs, is the delivery of the actors. Karen Olivo has by far the most powerful voice in the cast and in her part as Satine it gets utilized to its fullest extent. She brings a subtlety to her performance that is much needed in this decadent show. Performing opposite her are two attractive leading men, the artist Christian played by Aaron Tveit and the Duke played by Tam Mutu. Both exude sex appeal but in a different way. Tam Mutu portrays the duke with raw sex-appeal helped by alluring, seducing songs and the money to seal the deal whilst Aaron creates a softer love, Christian is a hopeless romantic who wants to convince Satine of the power of love and in his efforts manages to convince the audience as well. The entire show is energetically framed by the performance of Austin Durant as Harold Ziddler, the circus baron of the Moulin Rouge. With his glitter spraying cane he gets the audience to their feet multiple times during the show. But who may not be overlooked in this show are the beautiful humans of the ensemble, they ground the show as extras and create the spectacle in the beautifully choreographed (Sonya Tayeh) dance numbers.
What helps Moulin Rouge really hit its mark, are the visuals. The costumes, the sets and the lighting. They create enchanting compositions that really bring the book, music and performances together. Catherine Zuber creates an enticing mix between modern clothing and the dapper stylings of the Victorian era, complete with lace, leather and fishnets. Short skirts get traded for long dresses and tight pants for long billowing coats all framed by the extra-realistic sets. Derek McClane seems to be inspired by the opera’s the show is based on, especially in the time period that the show is set. He, as scenic designer, creates a beautiful forced perspective of Montmartre that dissolves at the foot of the Eiffel tower but looking so, so beautiful. This particular set goes in one scene from dusk to night in a series of perfect light cues designed by Justin Townsend. Justin and Derek also work beautifully together when it comes to ‘The Elephant Love Medley’ which ends in a extravagant spectacle that makes you wonder if the second act will ever top it.
In the end the show really gives you what you paid for, nothing more, nothing less. It hasn’t got the depth or originality recent Broadway juggernauts have presented us with, but some of those aren’t nearly as entertaining as this show. From the get-go this show grabs your attention by being so visually alluring and it never lets that attention go. I could see this show doing well overseas as well, and it really has a staying power. It’s a great date-night and a great show to see at any time. I whole-heartily recommend it to anyone who is just looking for a fun night out.
Seen on 12/19/2019, seen at: The Al Hirschfeld Theater, BOOK: John Logan, DIRECTOR: Alex Timbers, CHOREOGRAPHER: Sonya Tayeh, MUSIC SUPERVISOR, ORCHESTRATOR, ARRANGEMENTS AND ADDITIONAL LYRICS: Justin Levine, SCENIC DESIGNER: Derek McLane, COSTUME DESIGNER: Catherine Zuber, LIGHTING DESIGNER: Justin Townsend, SOUND DESIGNER: Peter Hylenski, HAIR DESIGNER: David Brian Brown, MAKEUP DESIGNER: Sarah Cimino, CREATIVE SERVICES: Baz Luhrmann & Catherine Martin, MUSIC PRODUCER: Matt Stine, MUSIC DIRECTOR AND ADDITIONAL ARRANGEMENTS: Cian McCarthy, CO-ORCHESTRATORS: Katie Kresek, Charlie Rosen & Matt Stine, DANCE ARRANGEMENTS: Justin Levine, Matt Stine, MUSIC COORDINATOR: Michael Aarons, TECHNICAL SUPERVISION: Juniper Street Productions, PRODUCTION STAGE MANAGER: Michael J. Passaro, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR: Ashley Rodbro, ASSOCIATE CHOREOGRAPHER: Katie Spelman.