The spectacle of Moulin Rouge! begins not with the opening number, but from the moment you walk into the glamorous, immersive theater decked out with a giant windmill on one side and a larger-than-life elephant on the other. Then, as you actually focus on what is on the stage, you’re greeted with seductive dancers strutting around in their burlesque best, making eyes at patrons as they find their seats and begin to even attempt to take in all the wonder around them.
Welcome to the Moulin Rouge.
This bombastic, enchanting and altogether magical Broadway musical, based on the Oscar-nominated 2001 film of the same name by Baz Lurhmann, is a love letter to love, most especially the all-consuming, desperate kind of love that songwriters have been trying to put into words over and over again for centuries.
For those unfamiliar, the plot — which, yes, is quite thin, you’ll enjoy it more if you just go with it — follows a captivating dancer, Satine (a stunning Karen Olivo), at the famous club circa 1899. There’s an evil Duke (Tam Mutu) to whom she is promised by the club owner (Danny Burstein, a smirking riot) in return for funds to keep the club running, and the young songwriter Christian (Aaron Tveit, who seems destined to break out in a big way) who stumbles into the club and into her heart. From there we are on a doomed path to inevitable tragedy, but oh, how fun it is to get there.
This is the best of what a jukebox musical can be; a thrilling burst of color and chorus and nostalgia and bold reimagining
This is the best of what a jukebox musical can be: a thrilling burst of color and chorus and nostalgia and bold reimagining. There are a whopping 70 songs you know and love in the show — some full numbers, some just snippets. Happily, the songs have been updated to include the present, which means modern hits such as “Shut Up and Dance” sit nicely along classics like Elton John’s “Your Song.” The tunes feel like they’re coming a mile a minute, but rather causing confusion, at the performance I attended, there were gasps of recognition and excited applause breaks of delight as all the various medleys and mashups unfolded.
Better still, new interpretations add emotional depth to pop songs we thought we knew. Standouts include Satine’s Act 1 barnburner “Firework” by Katy Perry and Christian’s naked longing and regret that powers Adele’s already-iconic-but-somehow-new-again “Rolling in the Deep.” The “Elephant Love Medley” — a highlight of the film — is expanded and changed up here, and is all the better for it.
Of course, all those songs need some movement to go with them. We’re at a theater, after all. Choreographer Sonya Tayeh works her magic, melding the seedy underbelly of this world with Broadway style and the results are memorable and enough to make you want to get to a dance class — or, you know, at least think about it. A mashup of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that kicks off the second act will power Persian bohemia fantasies for months.
No expense was spared in this purposefully lush and Vegas-esque production, and the result is an innovative way to bring to new life the over-the-top wonder this story demands. Scenic designer Derek McLane smartly made the giant theater feel as much like a club as possible, including having the first few rows of seats surrounded by more of the stage. Director Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) brings his winking charm to all the proceedings, keeping things moving and putting a new spin on moments film fans might be eager to see (a perfectly quirky Eiffel Tower bathed in blue is one such lovely nod).
The show was obviously created to see just how much joyful celebration could be packed into 135 minutes. So the show falters a bit when it attempts to strip things back and get more dramatic. Which may explain why, when our heroes come to their tragic ends, Timbers and company blink and throw in a stand up and cheer, leave it all on the floor extended finale. It’s fun, no doubt, but seems to be there so they aren’t sending audiences home on a depressing note.
Still, even if some emotional beats feel a little artificial or underserved, it’s likely a minor quibble for most. My advice? Surrender to the music and the glitzy madness and enjoy this euphoric fantasia for what it is, giant elephant and all.