‘Moulin Rouge’ on Broadway: An eye-and-ear-pleasing — and conventional — musical
The company of “Moulin Rouge!,” which had its official opening Thursday night on Broadway. (Matthew Murphy)
NEW YORK — The antic unconventionality of director Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 pop phenomenon “Moulin Rouge!” has been transformed into an eye-and-ear-pleasing — and altogether conventional — Broadway musical. With a glorious set by Derek McLane, more than 70 pop songs, and dynamic lead performances from Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit, the show is engineered for an evening of easily digested diversions.
The ambitions here in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where “Moulin Rouge!” marked its official opening Thursday, don’t extend to topping what Luhrmann created, with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in the romantic roles of a bohemian writer and a Parisian courtesan. The crazy fusion of contemporary music, operatic hyper-drama and kinetic editing that pegged the movie as the work of a mad auteur would probably have seemed like chaos onstage. That is, if director Alex Timbers and book writer John Logan had tried too faithfully to replicate Luhrmann’s style.
The few times they attempt it, in fact, the results feel like misplaced homage, and some of the least successful aspects of the film — its clumsy efforts at comedy, for instance — have, alas, found their way into Logan’s wit-deficient script. But what has translated well are the values the movie enshrined as a universal artistic credo: the bohemian ideals of freedom and beauty. On that account, you forgive some of the musical’s disappointments, such as a second act that wrenches into ersatz, lachrymose melodrama, and focus instead on an inspired night of singing and dancing.
“Moulin Rouge!” is the first splashy entry of the new Broadway season. For its aesthetic virtuosity — namely McLane’s reimagining of Catherine Martin’s movie design, along with Justin Townsend’s lighting and Catherine Zuber’s gorgeous period showgirl costumes — Timbers’s production grandly fulfills the mandate for epic lavishness. The audience is welcomed into the scarlet (for passion) demimonde of Paris’s legendarily scandalous nightclub: The signature windmill spins in the balcony, on the left, and the mascot elephant sits on the right. Concentric heart cutouts dominate center stage, which has been gussied up like a gauzy Valentine’s Day card. Welcome, the theater seems to be saying, to the tunnel of love.
Derek Lane designed the glorious, eye-pleasing set. (Matthew Murphy)
Luhrmann’s movie embraced cheap sentiment as if dime-store novels made the world go round. The story of the lascivious Duke, who preys on dying courtesan-entertainer Satine, who in turn falls for starving writer-artist Christian, is the lowbrow framework on which the film suspended its anachronistic pop score. The creative team here has if anything turned the stage version into an even more tuneful jukebox extravaganza. With the guidance of orchestrator and music supervisor Justin Levine — who also provides supplemental lyrics — the score includes many of the movie’s memorable numbers and adds what feels like every other song ever written.
The songbook now expands to include classics such as Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” and “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen,” as well as hits such as Beyoncé’s 2008 “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and Lady Gaga’s 2009 “Bad Romance.” The melody lines ring so familiar that the most reliable laughs occur whenever the 15-member band, conducted by Cian McCarthy, cranks up the next tune. Choreographer Sonya Tayeh is a maestro of dance as fever dream, infusing the cancan sequences set to “Lady Marmalade” and the tango to “Roxanne” (all from the movie) with a newfound dazzle.
Kidman and McGregor made a great pair on-screen, but neither was a natural singer. That served Luhrmann’s vision of an innocence radiating out of the core of his plot. But that lack of professional polish would have been fatal on Broadway. Starting with Olivo’s Satine and Tveit’s Christian, and continuing through Tam Mutu’s dastardly Duke and Sahr Ngaujah’s affecting Toulouse-Lautrec, the voices gift-wrap the songbook in consistent pleasurability.
Karen Olivo as Satine and Aaron Tveit as Christian in “Moulin Rouge!,” now on Broadway. (Matthew Murphy)
Olivo, a Tony winner for her performance as Anita in the 2009 Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” shoulders the toughest assignment, portraying a sultry chanteuse with a really bad cough who is both tough as nails and a softy. Plus, she has to descend from the rafters looking ravishing in a jewel-studded gown and singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (from the 1949 musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”). She accomplishes all this with beguiling ease, and you are persuaded that this Satine goes for the square-jawed Tveit, a Broadway mainstay (“Next to Normal,” “Catch Me If You Can”) before he moved into television and movies. He and Olivo are temperamentally well matched and make the most of the ever-shifting love-song medley in Satine’s dressing room that’s modeled on one of the movie’s most alluring sequences.
In Harold Zidler, the impresario desperately trying to keep the Moulin Rouge afloat, Danny Burstein finds an exemplary showcase; he adds to the Zidler we encountered in Jim Broadbent on-screen a more highly developed paternal feel for Satine. If anything, the show could use a bit more platonically affectionate undergirding for their relationship, because for all the beautiful bells and whistles in the Hirschfeld, “Moulin Rouge!” remains emotionally unfurnished. The movie’s ironic smirk, assisted by Luhrmann’s exclamation-point approach, has been wiped away. What’s left is a propulsive enchantment that, if you fell in love with the film, as I did, still allows you to fall in like with its follow-up.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical, book by John Logan. Directed by Alex Timbers. Music supervision, Justin Levine; choreography, Sonya Tayeh; sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, Peter Hylenski; creative services, Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin. With Tam Mutu, Ricky Rojas and Robyn Hurder. About 2½ hours. $99-$349. At Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., New York. ticketmaster.com.
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