As a setting for musical theater, Paris’s iconic Moulin Rouge nightclub is a natural. Baz Luhrmann knew that when he set his tragic, surreal Puccini-indebted 2001 movie (starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor) in the legendary, absinthe-soaked palace of Belle Epoch decadence. “Moulin Rouge” the movie was a gaudy, tawdry, glamorous, music-infused extravaganza that burned its way into a nation’s collective eye-balls and ear canals.
The 1899-set stage version, “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” currently playing at the Nederlander Theatre, is based on the movie and arrives with a similar vibe. The 10-time Tony Award winner directed by Alex Timbers captures the fever-dream pace, the lavish excess and the irresistible music of its titular inspiration in countless spangly ways.
‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’
There are more than 50 songs covering 160 years embedded in this jukebox musical, many of them pop hits from the past half century, hilariously repurposed for a story set long before.
John Logan’s book is cheesier than Wisconsin and has more cliches than a catalogue for inspirational breakroom posters. It also manages to satirize its flaws via a bit of clever meta-theater: A play-within-the-play blatantly soaks the melodrama and cliches for self-referential laughs.
The plot is as basic as they come, the characters are about as subtle as the sexual innuendos tossed about: Moulin Rouge star Satine (Courtney Reed) is a “courtesan”-with-a-heart-of-gold. The Duke of Monroth (David Harris) is a nefarious, filthy rich arch-villain who insists on buying Satine from club emcee/manager/pimp Harold Zidler (Austin Durant). Without the Duke’s money, the club will close as will the musical its performers are attempting to stage.
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Duke or no Duke, penniless composer Christian (Conor Ryan) and Satine fall in love. Through an ingenious melange of Gnarls Barkley (“Crazy”) and Adele (“Rolling in the Deep”), Christian devolves into the one of the most increasingly recognizable stereotypes of all: angry, manchild who conflates possessiveness with love.
The weight on Satine’s shoulders is oppressive: If she doesn’t do whatever the Duke wants, everyone at the Moulin Rouge will be out on “the streets,” we’re told repeatedly. This includes dancers Santiago (Gabe Martinez) and Nini (Libby Lloyd), a scorching tango duo that bring rage and eroticism to some Police-era-Sting (“El Tango de Roxane”), among other tunes. Another memorable club regular is Andre Ward’s Toulouse-Lautrec, who convincingly preaches the credo of Left Bank bohemians: “truth, beauty, freedom and love.”
Reed’s Satine capably captures both Whore and Madonna archetypes with numbers including a bubbly cover of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and a soaring rendition of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” She’s best in Perry mode; when Reed goes for the extreme raunchy end of the spectrum, she still comes up wholesome.
Fortunately, “Moulin Rouge” barely needs plot and character development because the music is so fabulous. It’s a cavalcade of hits from iconic hitmakers–from Offenbach to Regina Spektor to No Doubt to Lady Gaga to Lorde to Bowie to the Commodores–their lyrics and melodies resonating audibly in ingenious new contexts from start to finish.
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Arguably chief among them is “Lady Marmalade,” which opens the show. Labelle’s 1974 megahit is the number that defines “Moulin Rouge” arguably more than any other. Under music director Andrew Graham, it sounds as fresh and daring as it did when LaBelle originally gifted the planet with it.
Sonya Tayeh’s choreography captures the all the music’s powerful, lascivious beauty throughout with precise, explosive movements and an athletic grace that dares anyone to disrespect its blunt audacity.
The ensemble knocks one number after the other over La Tour Eiffel, so to speak. Britney Spears- (“Toxic”)-meets-Annie Lennox (“Sweet Dreams”) in a pile-driving, all-ensemble mashup about trying to quit an unhealthy relationship. When Ryan and Reed take on a melange of the Rolling Stones (“Sympathy for the Devil”), a-ha (“Take On Me”), Tina Turner (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”), Whitney Houston (“I Will Always Love You”) and Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes (“Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong”), to name a few, it’s a whole rom-com captured in a single montage.
The more-is-more sensibility is bolstered by Derek McLane’s brightly colored set and Catherine Zuber’s costumes. Christian’s artistic ambitions manifest with a jacket splashed in silver paint while Satine’s deep red-and-green show gown evokes the colors and textures of Lautrec’s paintings of dancers.
If you can ignore the story, you’re left with an inarguably entertaining night of music. This is a productionthat brings out the confetti cannons in the very first song and ramps things up from there. That rock-concert-adjacent, frenetic, hallucinogenic, sequin tsunami aesthetic is almost impossible to resist.
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